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170 rabbis and roshei yeshivos, and 2,300 fleeing expatriates from the top twenty-three Polish yeshivos, arrived in Vilna, including such influential figures as Rabbi Yitzchak Ze’ev (“Velvel”) Soloveitchik from Brisk, Rabbi Aryeh Shapiro and Rabbi Abraham Yaphin from Bialystok, Rabbi Moshe Shatzkes from Lomza, Rabbi Aharon Kotler of Kletzk, Rabbi Eliezer Yehudah Finkel from Mir, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman of Baranowicze, Rabbi Mendel Zacks from Radin, and Rabbi Shabtai Yogel of Slonim. With the exception of the Agudas Yisrael convention, this was the largest concentration of the greatest Torah minds in all of Europe, all facing the same question: what to do next? And they could not agree on a course of action.
Rav Grodzinsky,42 supported by his local Vaad HaYeshivos and its top rabbis, including Rabbi Nisan Yofe (who was later murdered at Ponar), Rabbi Aharon Berek (who was killed in the Vilna ghetto), Rabbi Chizkiyahu Yosef Mishkovsky (who survived the
Holocaust), and the influential Rabbi Joseph Shub, wanted them to “stay put” (shev ve’al ta’ase) in Vilna, arguing that in times of uncertainty, one takes no risk. At a meeting of
roshei yeshivos to discuss several plans of emigration, Rav Grodzinsky urged the sages “not to panic, that every place is dangerous and that Lithuania might remain calm… being neither black nor red, but pink.” This fantasy was shattered one bright summer day in June 1940.
The safe haven of Vilna, and other cities in Lithuania, suddenly turned into a claustrophobic Soviet bear trap.
The young Rabbi Shmuel Shlomo Leiner, a scion of the Radziner Chassidic dynasty, was offered safe passage to Warsaw, but, displaying extraordinary courage, he stayed behind in Wlodawa to help his fellow Jews. Recognizing that his presence lifted the morale of their prey, the Gestapo demanded that Rav Leiner surrender or the ghetto’s inhabitants would be slaughtered.
Rav Leiner calmly said goodbye to his wife and walked out to the enemy. He was then brutally beaten and sent to be gassed at Sobibor in May 1942.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau, chief rabbi of Piotrkow-Trybunalski, Poland, the thirty-seventh descendant of a rabbinical dynasty (with a Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Vienna), urged everybody to flee the ghetto immediately.But he decided to stay, explaining, “A shepherd does not abandon his flock in the face of a pack of wolves. I will not seek to save my own skin and abandon my flock.” Rav Lau and “his flock” of 24,000 Jews met their deaths in the gas chambers of Treblinka in October 1942.
Rabbi Shimon Kalish, the Amshinover Rebbe, supported by Rabbi Avraham Dov-Ber Kahane-Shapiro, the highly influential rav of Kaunas, disagreed with Rav Grodzinsky; they urged their colleagues and students to get out as fast as possible via the closest exit valve. But the rabbis of Kamenetz thought it best to return to Poland right away and wait out the hostilities.
On July 6, 1941, the Germans invaded Czortkow and decisions had to be made. The elders of the community met and reconfirmed their strong belief in the coming of the Messiah. They decided it was too risky to join the retreating Soviets going east and that they would be safer by staying. The majority stayed with them. Fast-forward two years: only 100 out of the 10,000 Jews of Czortkow survived.
Rav Rosen had managed to get exit visas to the United States. When he found out that the train taking him to the Italian port left on a Shabbos in August, 1939, he decided not to board, despite the fact that he had just paskened the opposite for other Jews, that Jewish law obligated them to flee even on a Shabbos. He decided to buy a ticket and, together with his wife, wait for the next boat (in November) because its train connection and departure date were on weekdays. The decision proved disastrous. The War began the next month and by September 10 the Gestapo was escorting the Manistriche Rebbe onto a different train with a different destination. In Buchenwald he was beaten to death upon arrival. When his rebbetzin received word of her husband’s death, although packed and ready to board the weekday train to safety with her son (Aryeh Leib), she decided to postpone her departure to sit shivah. The Germans had other plans. Before the week was up, she and her bar mitzvah boy found themselves at the Ninth Fort near Kovno, where they were murdered.
Several major rabbanim (e.g., Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aharonson in the Kunin camp and Rabbi Avraham Dov-Ber Kahane-Shapiro in the Kovno ghetto) assumed that taking work papers from the SS ensured a few more days of survival, and thus encouraged it. As it turned out, these Jews were immediately deported and murdered; in contrast, the Jews who refused the permits and either hid in cellars or fought back in forests had a greater chance of survival.
The most distinguished of Torah leaders were fallible, with human strengths and human weaknesses. How could it be otherwise? Prophecy had ceased to exist. There are no crystal balls in Judaism. There were no fail-safe solutions, no reliable road maps, nor any
precedents to resist state-supported factories of genocide. From within the European inferno none could foresee the future, nor is there anything in Torah or Chassidic doctrine to suggest they could.