Historian & Electronics Engineer
The Golden Age of the Lithuanian Yeshivot in Eastern Europe
This book aims to reconstruct the final period of the Lithuanian yeshivot in Eastern Europe, from the eve of WWI to the outbreak of WWII. The history of this yeshiva world is relatively short. Early in the nineteenth century, Rabbi Haim of Volozhin, a disciple of the Vilna Gaon, founded a modest yeshiva in his home town. Within a short time, it grew into an institution that served many communities and relied on financial support from the entire Pale of Settlement, eventually being recognized as the “mother” of the Lithuanian yeshivot in the modern era. The institutional framework developed there served as a model for other yeshivot established in the Jewish Lithuanian sphere and even for a few isolated branches in Congress Poland and Volhynia. Throughout the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century most yeshivot thrived in the face of deep crises. They weathered conservative trends as well as periods of renewal marked by changes in ways of thinking. In fact, their histories served as a mirror of the extraordinary happenings in the Jewish world outside their walls. It was only in the days of calm which followed those years in the Russian Empire that their organizational and educational systems stabilized.
Beyond the basic patterns that began to characterize the Lithuanian yeshivot, a special identity evolved that was plainly reflected in their cohesion and attempts at survival under the extremely difficult conditions at the onset of WWI. Though their sizes shrank drastically, the nucleus, which included the yeshiva heads and older students, continued to function even when they were forced to wander across Russia and the Ukraine for extended periods. This conduct distinguished many of the yeshivot, not merely an isolated few, though they all acted independently. The sense of solidarity continued over the next two decades, when the yeshivot suffered great hardships during the economic crisis in Europe and the Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States. Despite the extremely difficult conditions and lack of food, most of the students remained in their yeshivot, while their elderly leaders journeyed to foreign lands to raise desperately needed funds. This sense of commonality and determination was manifested more powerfully still at the outbreak of WWII. Faced again with an emergency situation similar to that of the previous war, the heads and most of the students of the yeshivot—now perhaps better organized—fled the townships of Poland for Vilna. In this city—and later in the towns of Lithuania—the yeshivot continued to function as organic and independent units, and remained so, regardless of the harsh circumstances following the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, until their destruction in the Holocaust.
The yeshiva world of Eastern Europe, which was obliterated scarcely less than three generations ago, accumulated a treasury of traditions, stories, myths and anecdotes that the graduates and survivors passed on to the next generations, some orally and some in writing. Even if we accept them as historical facts, they are likely to provide a fragmented picture of the yeshivot at best. It is remarkable that despite the impressive rehabilitation of the Lithuanian yeshivot in our time and their extraordinary dynamism, not one piece of critical research has been produced on the history of even one yeshiva during the interwar period, and what is more—nor has a critical biography of any of their leaders been published. Thus, this book on the Lithuanian yeshivot gedolot (senior yeshivot) in Eastern Europe between the wars is the first systematical research effort to fill that gap.
The book offers a lateral approach to the world of Lithuanian yeshivot, through historical, economic, educational, social and statistical-quantitative perspectives, from the years preceding WWI up to their demise, three decades later, based on a study of each individual Lithuanian yeshiva gedola in Eastern Europe. Understanding of the fixed as well as variable aspects inherent in them enables examination of the joint processes they underwent and revelation of their uniqueness. Though space prohibits the inclusion of individual monographs of the various yeshivot, this book does provide a glimpse of their inner-workings, depicting the processes and some irregularities in those institutions, which to this day are still considered the shining beacon of yeshivot throughout the Jewish world.
הספר פרקי היכלות מציג מסורות מיסטיות עתיקות העוסקות בירידה למרכבה השמימית, בתיאור ההיכלות העליונים ובהשבעת מלאכים. זמן התהוותן של מסורות אלו בתקופת המשנה, התלמוד והמדרשים, וחלקן יוחסו לגדולי התנאים רבי ישמעאל ורבי עקיבא. בהיותן מתחום המיסטיקה הן לא נפוצו בקרב העם, ונשתנה גורלן מגורל מסורות מדרשיות והלכתיות שנקלטו היטב בקהילות ישראל. יחידי סגולה העבירו את מסורות ההיכלות מדור לדור, והן נערכו עריכה אחרונה בידי חסידי אשכנז במאה ה-13. מעט מזעיר מעריכה זו הוצא לאור עם הופעת הדפוס, אך רבה הייתה בספרים אלו הערבוביה שנבעה משינויי הגרסאות בכתבי היד ומשיבושים לאין ספור שהשתרבבו בהם במרוצת הדורות.
בהתאמה למסקנות מתחום המחקר, בא פרקי היכלות לרכז את מסורות ההיכלות לא לפי חלוקתן המקובלת עד עתה אלא על-פי סידורן לנושאים. חלוקה זו מלבד עשותה סדר במסורות המיסטיות מנגישה אותן לקורא בן זמננו ואף יוצרת לעתים רצף סיפורי מרתק.
My Edited Books
From the Ends of the Earth
The Struggle for Survival of a Jewish Girl from Lithuania on the Banks of the Arctic Ocean
by Gitta Langleben-Klibansky
The book opens with the author's vivid description of her life in a traditional family in Lithuania in the 1920s and 1930s, her studies at the Hebrew Gymnasium in Kovno, and the dramatic turn in Gitta’s life as a result of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in 1940. Only a few days before the first gruesome massacres of the Lithuanian Jews, Gitta and her family are expelled from their home by the Soviets. Although they escape the claws of the murderous Nazis and Lithuanians, their destiny takes them to the terrifying banks of the Arctic Ocean.
Gitta’s account of life in Siberia is an extraordinary description of her confrontation with the brutal climate and the flinty Soviet authorities – but also of an establishment of a Jewish community which, with enormous effort, attempted to reconstruct the spiritual-communal life it had known in Lithuania. The kingpins of this new Jewish community were Gitta’s father and the mother of her future husband, who taught the youth Hebrew, organized daily prayers, constructed Jewish calendars and initiated other activities.
Sixteen years later, following the long-awaited release from Siberian exile, the author and her husband in Vilna attempt to gain permission to immigrate to Israel. When their struggle runs into a brick wall, they express their longing for the Jewish homeland by naming their children with Jewish names and teaching them the Hebrew language openly. After thirteen years of tedious efforts, their stubborn struggle succeeds in triumph. The book ends with their landing in the Promised Land.
As the editor of this work, I have added to the memoirs a research wrapping of relevant footnotes and a professional article at the appendix dealing with the deportation of the Lithuanian Jews, based on NKVD documents that I uncovered at the special archives in Vilna. This extensive research material complements the author's memoirs from a scientific perspective and reveals for readers and researchers quite a fascinating piece of Jewish history that has disappeared until now into the shadow of Holocaust stories.
Expulsion and Extermination
Holocaust Testimonials from Provincial Lithuania
by David Bankier
Lithuania ranks among the countries with the largest percentage of Jewish victims during the Holocaust. Of the approximately quarter of a million Jews who lived within its borders at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, only some eight thousand were fortunate to see the end of the Nazi occupation. Moreover, the rural Jewry that lived in townlets or villages in the Lithuanian province was totally annihilated already during the first few months of the war. The intensity of its massacres was unprecedented. It was not the killing of selected victims but the obliteration of entire communities and an inhuman, unimaginable face-to-face murder of utterly hopeless people, including old, women, children and even infants.
Whereas the extermination process of the Jews in the Lithuanian big cities has been studied in detail, the fate of the Jewish communities in the Lithuanian province was not given proper consideration. The few studies that do exist are based almost exclusively on documents of the perpetrators.
This book intends to tell about the annihilation of these provincial communities, relying on rich documentary evidence of the survivors – selected from Leyb Koniuchovsky’s collection at Yad Vashem. It provides a complete picture of the Jewish experience – the humiliation, stigmatization, isolation, slave labor and the suffering in ghettos before Jews were put to death. It describes the active and massive participation of the Lithuanians in the persecution and murder, and reveals the extent to which conditions in the Lithuanian province affected the dynamics of the ‘Final Solution’.