Part III – 55th Yahrtzeit of Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l

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by Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times

FIRST TRIP TO AMERICA

Rav Aharon came to the United States in 1935 to raise funds for the Yeshiva. He arrived on September 10th, 1935 having left Europe from Cherbourg, France aboard the Majestic. He stayed by his friend, Rabbi Kudensky of 6 Rutger Street in Manhattan. Rabbi Kudensky owned a Seforim store and was active in Agudas haRabbonim. He remained for eleven months because the financial situation was so bleak.

A reception was held in Manhattan in his honor which included the names of some of New York’s most prominent Rabbis. Recognition was given to Rav Aharon as one of the leading Rabbis of the generation. Rav Aharon, however, was not particularly enamored by prominent pulpit Rabbis, and did not develop extensive contacts with them, even later in life.

Even though he was in America for fundraising, he did not rest in terms of spreading Torah. In the short months that he was in America he attempted to transplant the love and depth of study that the European Yeshivos were known for – in America. Under Rav Aharon’s influence, Reb Shraga Feivel Mendelevitch established the Yeshiva known as Beis Medrash Elyon in Monsey. Even while on a fundraising trip, Rav Aharon planted the seeds of Torah that would later allow Torah to thrive on the shores of America. After the eleven months, Rav Aharon returned to Europe.

On account of the interaction with Rav Aharon while he was in America, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelevitz, leader of Yeshiva Torah V’Daas in Brooklyn, sent one of his prized Talmidim, Rav Gedaliah Shorr – newly married the former Shifra Isbee from Detroit, to study under Rav Aharon in Kletzk. He arrived for Elul Zman in 1938.
Reb Gedaliah had a unique manner of sitting and concentrating that hid his extreme focus. He stood somewhat hunched over, holding his head with his eyes near closed- almost as if he was half asleep. The truth was that he had remarkable powers of concentration and this particular stance helped him focus. At the time, Rav Aharon mentioned to his son Reb Schneur that there was a “naya yungerman from America – they say he’s an ilui but he seems to be sleeping. Check into him.” Rav Aharon, however, spoke to him before Rav Schneur did and was very impressed with him. He went back to his son and retracted the comment .
That year, Reb Gedaliah’s wife, Shifra wrote back to Reb Gedaliah’s sister, Mina Keller, in America that she was bored and had taken it upon herself to teach English to the Rosh HaYeshiva’s thirteen year old daughter, Sara. It seems that Rebbitzen Shorr taught her well, as Sara’s proficiency in language eventually landed her a prestigious post.
In another letter home she commented that the Kletzer’s were teasing the Americans about being a bit too naïve in regard to their mass hysteria over the October 30th broadcast of H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds” by Orson Welles. Both the Bnei HaYeshiva and the townspeople teased them about how so many Americans believed that America had been invaded by Martians.
Just ten months after the Schorrs had arrived in Poland, the American consulate warned Reb Gedaliah that he and his wife must leave Kletzk back to America because the Nazi invasion was imminent. At the time, Rav Aharon Kotler too was unaware of the depth of the conflagration that was to hit European Jewry. He penned a letter urging Reb Gedaliah to remain at Kletz. However, Reb Gedaliah was already on board the ship by the time Rav Aharon’s response had arrived.
A picture of the Kletzk Yeshiva’s hanhallah and 214 Talmidim from 1938 is available. Rabbi Shimon Goder was the executive director. The Mashgiach was Rav Yoseph Aryeh Nendig. Rav Yechezkel Levenstein was also a Mashgiach of the yeshiva at a certain point too. Another member of the Hanhallah was Rav Dovid Dov HaLevi Kreiser, who took charge of the Yeshiva Ketana. Rav Kreiser was the father-in-law of Rav Dovid Povarsky, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevech. Rav Shach too used to deliver Chaburos in the Yeshiva, and his picture appears prominently in the Yeshiva photograph under the mashgiach Rav Yechezkel Levenstein. Tragically, most of the students of Kletz were murdered by the Nazis.
THIRD KNESSIAH IN MARIANBAD
In the summer of 1937, the third convention of the rabbinical leaders of Agudath Israel was held in Marienbad. It was attended by hundreds of rabbis, heads of yeshivas and grand rabbis of Chassidic communities from a number of countries. Rabbi Aharon Kotler attended this convention. Rav Aharon was only 45 years old, but the other Roshei yeshiva and Gedolim of Europe accorded him remarkable respect.
At the convention, a seemingly supportive political position of Zionism was proposed by Dr. Isaac Breuer and some other Agudah leaders who followed the German Jewish approach to Agudah . Rav Aharon and Reb Elchonon, however, would have none of it. They protested the position in the strongest of terms.
The periodical HaPardes (Year 11, Issue 7) reports that “Rav [Elchonon] Wasserman, Rav [Aharon] Kotler, Rav [Mordechai] Rottenberg from Antwerp and rabbis from Czechoslovakia and Hungary were unanimous in rejecting any proposal for a Jewish State on either side of the Jordan River, even if it were established as a religious state because such a regime would be a form of heresy in our faith in the belief in the coming of the Messiah, and especially since this little Jewish state would be built on heresy and desecration of the Name of G-d.”
Rav Aharon’s reputation as a Gadol haDor spread far and wide after the Agudah convention. He wrote responses from Kletzk to letters that came from everywhere. In mid-February 1938, he penned a responsa to someone regarding a misshapen letter Shin, whether it was kosher or not . Another letter, sadly, sticks out. It was written on March 15th, 1938, and Rav Aharon responded to a complex question regarding a Get and Agunah from Rav Yehudah Leib Langfuss, a Dayan in Makow, Poland . Makow was occupied by the Nazis in September of 1939. Rabbi Leib Langfuss and his family were transported to Auschwitz four years after his correspondence with Rav Aharon, on December 7th, 1942. In 1944, Reb Leib helped lead the insurrection of the Sonderkommando against the Nazis, yimach shmam. He was murdered shortly afterwards. On April 21st, 1938, Rav Aharon wrote another letter in response to a question about a Get to Rabbi Mordechai Yitzchok HaKohen Weinzimmer, the Av Bais Din of New Mosh.
Each year, Rav Aharon would spend Bain HaZmanim in Druzgenyk. Joseph Pilsudski, the head of the new Republic of Poland, vacationed there several times himself. He also orchestrated the development of Druzgenyk as a health vacation center. Many Roshei Yeshiva and Bnei Torah would also vacation there to bathe in its famous saline healing waters. The trees, the salt baths and the atmosphere enabled them to refresh themselves for the upcoming Zman. Rav Aharon met his previous Rebbe, Rav Boruch Ber Liebowitz, there and they would discuss Torah. They all ate in a communal hall of sorts, very similar to the camp dining rooms found currently in the Catskills. Rav Aharon spent the summer of 1939 in Druzgenyk. It would be the last one he would spend there. In September of 1939, the Soviets would capture and take over this famous spa city.
Rav Aharon carried on correspondences in learning with the great Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbis of Europe as their equal, and even more. On June 15th, 1939, he responds to an inquiry from Rav Yechezkel Abramsky zt”l, the chief Rabbi of London about the topic of a messenger appointing a messenger . He responds to Rav Elchono Wasserman zt”l’s shiur on tractate Yevamos (Kovetz Haaros #3) . He writes to Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky zt”l a very lengthy correspondence on the Talmudic topic of Tzaras Sotah . He also responds to an inquiry from Rav Henkin about the text of a Get and about a condition in the marriage formula .
*On Isru Chag of Pesach 1939 he wrote a responsa concerning the fire in Kletzk that occurred during the summer of 1937. The fire left poor people. The people of Kletzk had collected funds for a situation that had occurred to the poor people of Brisk. Could they change it? They asked Rav Aharon for his view. He concluded that they could not.
THE NAZIS
In August of 1939, the entire world was watching Nazi Germany, worried about the future of Poland and of another possible World War. On the 24th Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister, flew to meet with Molotov, the Russian foreign minister. They were soon to announce a ten year non-aggression pact. The mood in Kletzk was somber, as everyone knew that the Germans and the Russians would be discussing the future of Poland.
One of the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, was that after the Nazis would invade Poland, the Soviets would immediately invade Eastern Poland. This, of course, was not known by anyone at the time. Most of Poland as well as the Bnei HaYeshiva were very concerned of an impending Nazi invasion. Some of the bochurim in the Yeshiva had already received their draft notices from the Polish army.
On Friday, September 1st, 1939, the radio announced that Nazi planes were already bombarding Warsaw, Cracow and other Polish cities. Rav Aharon gave a special Mussar shmuess to his students before Mincha. He urged everyone to do Teshuvah for past Aveiros, and to pray for Hitler Yimach Shmo’s downfall. He asked that everyone pray for the safety of Jews and of all good people wherever they are in the struggle against the Nazis. He spoke emotionally with tears streaming down his cheeks, and the Bnei HaYeshiva cried as well.
On Sunday the 3rd of September, England and France declared war on Germany. Briefly, there was a feeling of relief in the Yeshiva, but it was not to last. And yet, the Talmidim were resolute in their hasmada and continued learning.
One of the Talmidim, Reb Alter Pekier, would tell Rav Aharon the news reports that he had heard on the radio each day. Like all radio reports from countries that are on a rapidly losing side, the radio reports were falsely optimistic and lied. Rav Aharon was able to see through these false reports and explained to the young Reb Alter that since the news reports mentioned new town names that were not in earlier reports, it was clear that the Polish troops were making a hasty retreat in land.
Rosh HaShana of 1939 was a three day Yom Tov, and the Bnei Yeshiva prayed more fervently than ever before as they truly knew that their lives hung in the balance. On the second day of Rosh HaShanah the Nazi Luftwaffe bombed the town of Baronovitch, and many terrified refugees arrived in nearby Kletzk in the middle of the Yom Tov.
Early in the morning on Sunday the 17th, soldiers slowly marched into Kletzk. The people of Kletzk were soon to be in for a surprise. They were Russian soldiers. The reactions to the identities of the new occupiers were mixed.
The Jews of Kletzk were elated. Poland, since 1918 had turned decidedly fascist and exhibited strong anti-Semitism. They boycotted Jewish business and almost banned Shechitah. Surely, the Russians were to be their liberators. The gentiles were depressed that the Russians were now to take over their long fought for independence. Rav Aharon and the students of his Yeshiva were concerned because of the harsh experiences in Slutzk.
The Soviets, to their shock, found a fully functioning Yeshiva undeterred by what was happening around them. Rav Aharon anticipated a food crisis in the days following the entry of the Russians. He hired horses and wagons to obtain necessary produce so that the Yeshiva could continue. Each morning the Yeshiva bochurim would go on the rounds obtaining the food. The peasants gladly gave their potatoes, carrots, onions, and cucumbers. The Jewish merchants sold their flour, cheese, sugar and salt on condition that when a small payment could be made, it would.
Sukkos of 1939, was extraordinary in the Yeshiva, as the Bochurim did their best not to let the grave political situation effect their Simchas HaChag. Lulavim and Esrogim, were entirely unavailable, but extraordinarily, Rav isser Zalman Meltzer was able to send one set to Rav Aharon from Eretz Yisroel. The entire Yeshiva used that set.
Immediately after Yom Tov, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky sent a telegram to Rav Aharon to come right away for an important meeting in Vilna. Most of the ROshei Yeshiva in occupied Poland would be in attendance. Rav Aharon left to Vilna on Sunday morning, October 8th, 1939, two days after Yom Tov.
After consultation with Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, the universally recognized Gadol HaDor, Rav Aharon decided to move the Yeshiva to Vilna immediately after Sukkos. Vilna was to be recognized as part of a free and independent Lithuania and thus gave the Jews there some temporary breathing room. Rav Aharon sent a telegram to his wife, Rebbitzen Chana Perel, on Wednesday October 11th, instructing her to bring their son, daughter and the entire Yeshiva body to Vilna. There were 200 students studying in the Yeshiva at the time. He urged them not to delay a moment and that they may even travel on the Shabbos. His expectation, however, was that they try to leave within 24 hours.
A caravan of horse drawn carriages was arranged to bring the Bnei HaYeshiva to Vilna. One of the caravans was reserved for Reb Shneur, his sister and mother, the Rebbitzen. They travelled through the night to Baronovich, as the traffic on the highway was heavy with refugees and Polish troops. They arrived in Baronovich on Friday morning.
At the train station the Bnei Yeshiva had met people that were actually returning from Vilna to Kletzk, because the situation in Vilna had become “catastrophic.” The decided to spend Shabbos in Baronovich but to first wire Rav Aharon as to what they should do. An hour before Shabbos they received the reply. Rav Aharon told them to leave Baronovich at once for Vilna, even though they would be travelling on Shabbos.
The Bnei yeshiva arrived in Vilna on Shabbos morning at 8:00 AM. Now that there no longer was an issue of Pikuach Nefesh, they remained in the Vilna train station until Motzei Shabbos. Arrangements were made to house the Yeshiva bochurim – no easy task in an already overcrowded Vilna teeming with refugees.
The Yeshiva regrouped in Vilna, in the Yogiches Beis Midrash. Lunch was served at a local soup kitchen. The families that housed the Yeshiva Bochurim provided breakfast and dinner.
The advice to come to Vilna was warranted. The Russians announced that Vilna would indeed be returned to Lithuania, a neutral country. On Sunday October 28th, the transfer occurred.
DURING THE NAZI PERIOD
Rav Aharon tried desperately to arrange for some safe country to fully transfer his Yeshiva. His father-in-law, Rav Isser Zalman, cabled him from Eretz Yisroel in Hebrew, “Lama atem yoshvim al har goesh kazeh? – Why are you yet sitting on top of a volcano such as this, he asked?”
The British, of course, had issued White Papers forbidding further Jewish emigration to Eretz Yisroel. To get to Eretz Yisroel would take years. Rav Aharon decided that the Yeshiva would be safer and better off if they went deeper into Lithuania. The Yeshiva could continue its learning undistracted as well.
In January of 1940, Rav Aharon wrote to Rav Meir Karelitz, the brother of the Chazon Ish, of his desire to temporarily establish the Yeshiva in Yanova, outside of Kovno. He mentioned that he had already obtained a license to that effect. He further wrote in a post script that he and his family received a certificate to go to Eretz Yisroel, but he refused to utilize it until he was able to ensure the safety of his students.
Rav Aharon successfully arranged the move. In February of 1940, the Bnei HaYeshiva loaded all of their belongings onto rented trucks, this time, and drove out of Vilna. Three hours later they arrived safely in Yanova.
In the meantime, Rav Aharon remained most of the time in Vilna to assist in the efforts of transporting all of the European yeshivas to safer territories. Nonetheless, he travelled the 2 and ½ hour trip twice each week to deliver his shiurim to the Bnei HaYeshiva. He would also bring with him Rav Eliezer Shach during these visits to lift up the atmosphere of the Yeshiva.
The Kletzk Yeshiva remained in Yanova through Purim and Pesach of 1940. They were supported by the Jews of Yanova and a modicum of a sense of normalcy had begun to take root.
On June 5th 1940, the Russians reneged on their “promise” of Lithuanian integrity. Soviet tanks entered into Lithuania. It was all very carefully planned as the Russians knew every street of every town in Lithuania.
Yanova now, was no longer entirely safe, with the threat of the communists. The Russians had completed the entire annexation of Lithuania by the end July of 1940.
DEATH OF RAV CHAIM OZER

Throughout this time, Rav Aharon had looked toward Rav Chaim Ozer for advice and consultation. He had remained with Rav Chaim Ozer in Vilna and was often found at Rav Chaim Ozer’s home at 17 Zavalna Street. The Vaad Hatzolah leadership in America had decided to attempt the ambitious plan of bringing all the European Yeshivos to the United States. The plan was too ambitious of course. They would be fighting too powerful forces in America that did not want them.
Rav Aharon wrote back to the Vaad Hatzolah’s president, Rav Chaim Ozer’s former student, Rav Eliezer Silver on July 7th. “We rejoiced to learn of the noble idea to transfer the sanctuaries of the Torah, the sacred yeshivos, to the United States. These holy intentions can be compared to the deeds of Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai at the time of the Temple’s destruction.”
Rav Chaim Ozer had passed away in early August of 1940, and now the Torah world and Rav Aharon were bereft of his wise leadership.
The Soviets were concerned that the Yeshiva students might influence others in their ways, and demanded that the Yeshiva split up into three different groups. The Yeshiva had actually grown grown during this time and now had 250 students. Rav Aharon complied with the request, and the Yeshiva split into three locations; Saluk, Doshad, Duksht. Saluk was a village near the city of Dvinsk in Latvia. Doshad was ten miles west of Saluk.
Rav Aharon made his central location in Saluk. He had already began organizing his shiurim, and the Yeshiva’s old battered Hebrew typewriter was brought to Salu. Reb Beryl Starobin was serving as the Rosh haYeshiva’s secretary and was entrusted with typing Rav Aharon’s notes on his shiurim. Many of these were to later be published by the Machon Mishnas Rav Aharon. Rav Aharon made it his business to visit his Talmidim in the other locales as well. Rav Yosef Leib Nenedick went to Doshad. The more advanced students went to Duksht.
Saluk was very isolated and consisted of one market place and four little streets. The Jews of the town welcomed the Yeshiva in their midst, and offered them their rather small Beis Midrash where the now smaller Yeshiva resumed its studies. Rav Aharon gave regular shiurim, but maintained contact with the other two locales as well, and even gave shiurim there.
In the meantime, efforts in the United States to save the Yeshivos were floundering slightly. The members of the Vaad Hatzolah in the United States were broken at the loss of Rav Chaim Ozer. What was needed was new energy. It was decided that Rav Aharon himself was to be brought to the United States to help in rescue efforts.
Initially, Rav Aharon did not wish to leave his students. However, on a Friday, November 8th 1940, three member’s of the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, visited the Yeshiva and took away the Yeshiva’s typewriter and Rav Aharon’s papers. The main function of the NKVD was to protect the state security of the Soviet Union. They did so through massive political repression, and the use of sanctioned political murders and assassinations.
Rav Aharon was ordered to report to NKVD headquarters for interrogation. Rav Aharon showed no fear and absolutely refused to allow any of the Talmidim to accompany him. He emerged from the interrogation unscathed, and had not let on to his interrogators who he was and his relationship with the Talmidim.
KOVNO
In the meantime, in Kovno, Lithuania, a family had moved into a two family house on Ponyero 15. The bottom floor was the home of Rav Avrohom Grodzinsky. On the top floor Rav Aryeh Malkiel Friedman and his family moved in. Their daughter, Rischel, would soon become engaged to Rav Aharon’s son. Reb Shneur. The Friedmans were extraordinary Baalei Chessed. They welcomed into their home all Yeshiva students who were desperately trying to escape the Nazi beasts. Day and night Reb Aryeh Malkiel would send telegrams on behalf of others in an attempt to get visas and other documents for them.
Rav Elchonon Wasserman stayed and hid with the Friedmans in Kovno during the time of the Nazis. The Friedman home became a Bais Vaad l’Chachomim where Gedolei Torah gathered to discuss life and death issues. Reb Elchonon did have an escape plan to go to Switzerland, but an accident where Reb Elchonon’s son had crushed his foot delayed the escape. By the time they were able to travel, unfortunately, the Nazis had closed all opportunity to escape. Reb Elchonon and nine others hid from the Nazis in the Friedman home. While most of those who were hiding in the friedman home would remain on the upper floor Reb Elchonon would be learning on the first floor – adjacent to the stairwell.
SHIDDUCH
Shortly before Rav Elchonon was murdered, he suggested a shidduch to Reb Aryeh Malkiel. Reb Elchonon was close with Rav Aharon Kotler. At the age of 17, Rebbitzen Rischel got engaged to Reb Shneur Kotler, age 22, in early 1941.
But they were not to marry for a while. Reb Shneur was arrested by the Russian for evading the draft. Although he was released, he knew that he was no longer safe in Russia. His first attempt was to make himself physically unfit for the Russian army. This failed to fool the Russians. Finally, his father had worked out with Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer a manner in which to obtain the proper papers to enter Eretz Yisroel. Reb Shneur took a boat to “Palestine” together with Reb Laizer Yudel Z”L, Rav Laizer Shach Z”L, and a number of others. Reb Shneur learned in the Chevron Yeshiva and also learned under his grandfather, Reb Isser Zalman Meltzer. Reb Shneur was also able to learn and hear shiurim from the Brisker Rav.
BACK TO SALUK
It soon became clear to all that for the sake of the Talmidim and for Rav Aharon that he must try to get help for the Bnei HaYeshiva from America. The necessary paperwork was obtained for Rav Aharon to come to the United States. His Talmidim and the other Jews of Saluk escorted him toward the railway station in Vilna.
In January of 1941, Rav Aharon began his trip by way of Japan.
While in Japan, Rav Aharon and one of his talmidim, Reb Moshe Cohen were walking when the Emperor of Japan was passing through the street. The custom was for every person present to immediately bow. Rav Aharon did not bow because he was concerned that the emperor had viewed himself as a deity and that bowing would constitute abizraihu of Avodah Zarah. The polie proceeded to beat up Rav Aharon to the point where he had to be hospitalized. Reb Moshe Cohen visited Rav Aharon in the hospital. When he visited Rav Aharon berated him for not refusing to bow as well (heard from son).
On February 7th, 1941, Rav Aharon and his wife and daughter Sarah were issued visas. Rav Aharon was one of the last to be able to leave Europe as very shortly, the Soviets ceased to issue exit visas.
They booked passage aboard the M.S. Kamakura Maru, and arrived in Kamajura, Japan. The ship was only eleven years old, could carry 800 passengers, and generally cruised at a speed of 19 knots. Other passengers on the boat were Jews as well, trying to escape the inferno that was to destroy European Jewry. Japan, of course, was not yet at war with the United States, It would be eight months later that they would embark upon their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. One year after Rav Aharon was to arrive in America, the Imperial Japanese Navy confiscated the ship to use for troop transfer. Two years later, the ship was torpedoed by a US submarine.
The gangplank did not have a maakah, and the gangplank was som 5 stories high. By nature, Rav Aharon was scared of heights. Moshe Cohen was there and took the ksavim of the Rosh yeshiva away from him. Rav Aharon uickly ran up to get them from Moshe Cohen and thus got onto the boat. On the boat as well was, Gruna Katz who was an adopted daughter of Rav Aharon and his wife.
While in Japan, the question of the international dateline arose. Which day was to be considered Shabbos? He, Rav Reuvain Grozovsky, and Rav Mendel Zaks ruled that they should observe two days of Shabbos on all matters that were a biblical prohibition. The decision was made to observe three nights of Pesach sedarim as well .
On Thursday April 10th, 1941, the day before Erev Pesach, Rav Aharon, his wife, and his daughter Sara arrived in the United States by boat in San Francisco. On Monday, April 14th, the first day of Chol HaMoed, Rav Aharon took a train out east and arrived at Penn Station one week later on April 21, 1941.
TO BE CONTINUED
The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com