After the outbreak of the First World War – between Germany and Russia in 1914 – the Chafetz Chaim, R’ Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan, zt”l, worried about the potential German occupation and the effect it would have on his yeshivah in Radin. He decided to split his yeshivah into two parts. One would stay in Radin while the other would escape somewhere deep into Russia. A small portion of students remained with R’ Moshe Landynski, zt”l, and the mashgiach ruchani, R’ Yosef Leib Nendik, zt”l, while the majority, as well as the Chafetz Chaim, his son-in-law, R’ Hirsch Leib Levinson, zt”l, and R’ Naftali Trop, zt”l, left Radin and arrived in Smilovitz in the province of Minsk.
It was short-lived. German forces occupied Minsk in February 1918 and began arresting students – who were freed only after much effort and expense. With the rise of communism, the situation was not set to improve. When it was clear that it would be impossible for the yeshivah to survive in Smilovitz, the Chafetz Chaim looked to return to Poland and his hometown of Radin. The move back to Radin was hastened with the death of his son-in-law in 1921 after a short illness.
Suddenly, the Chazon Ish stood up and exclaimed, “What? How can this be? It is clearly written in the Mishnah Berurah not like this!”
However, things did not go smoothly. Many difficulties were encountered obtaining permission to travel and cross the border back into Poland. The yeshivah was delayed in Minsk for close to two months. It is told that there was a wealthy Jew in the city who owned a textile factory. Luck shone upon him and he won the grand prize in a government lottery, 200,000 rubles. The Chafetz Chaim and other notables approached the wealthy man and he gave 500 rubles for the yeshivah to return to Poland. It was a huge sum. As he was walking along, a porter with a sack of flour passed the Chafetz Chaim and inadvertently dirtied his clothes. Another man approached him and said, “Rabbi, you are dirty with flour,” and began to wipe the Chafetz Chaim’s clothes – and in the process stole the 500 rubles. Now he was back to square one.
With few options, the Chafetz Chaim sent a letter to his close friend, the posek hador, R’ Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, zt”l, in Vilna, asking for assistance. He wrote in pleading terms how the situation was quickly deteriorating, and if the yeshivah did not get back into Poland soon they could be stuck there for good. “Please hurry, my dear friend,” wrote R’ Yisrael Meir, “because this is a matter of pikuach nefesh.” The letter arrived by post in Vilna on the fifth day of Sivan, Erev Shavuos, and R’ Chaim Ozer read the letter late in the afternoon, precious few minutes before sundown.
At that time, R’ Chaim Ozer had two guests in his home: R’ Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, zt”l, future author of the Chazon Ish, and his brother-in-law, R’ Shmuel Greineman, zt”l, the renowned activist who worked tirelessly on behalf of the klal. R’ Chaim Ozer read the letter out loud for the benefit of his guests, and then decided that R’ Shmuel should take the first express train to Warsaw on Motzaei Yom Tov to see what he can do to arrange permits for the Radin yeshivah. R’ Shmuel agreed wholeheartedly and the two began discussing which authorities were approachable and which were not.
During this time, the Chazon Ish was sitting quietly, engrossed in a sefer. Suddenly, he stood up and exclaimed, “What? How can this be? It is clearly written in the Mishnah Berurah not like this!” R’ Chaim Ozer and R’ Shmuel stopped talking and looked at him. “If the author of the Mishnah Berurah rules that in a situation that involves pikuach nefesh one may violate the Shabbos and Yom Tov, then how can this wait? The Chafetz Chaim clearly wrote in his letter that this matter of leaving Russia immediately is one of life and death; should we not follow his own ruling?”
R’ Chaim Ozer jumped into action. That very moment, he handed R’ Shmuel money and told him to grab the next train to Warsaw. R’ Shmuel did as he was told and arrived in Warsaw the following morning, the first day of Shavuos. The first beis midrash he came upon was one of chasidei Gur, who were right in the middle of davening Shacharis. The people were shocked when they heard R’ Shmuel’s story and how he traveled through the night to get to Warsaw.
Immediately, a few influential chasidim of Gur ran with R’ Shmuel to the necessary authorities to arrange permits. They signed what needed to be signed, paid what needed to be paid, and wired whatever documents were needed to be wired – all based on the psak of the Mishnah Berurah. Baruch Hashem, it all worked out for the best – and not a minute too soon. R’ Shmuel would later say that he learned through his contacts that had the Chafetz Chaim and the Radin yeshivah remained in Minsk for even a small length of time, the authorities would not have allowed them to leave permanently.
As soon as the permits were received and they crossed the border, the yeshivah arrived in Baranowitz where they stayed for a few days. In the spring of 1921, the yeshivah arrived back in Radin where it remained until World War II.
Rabbi Dovid Hoffman is the author of the popular “Torah Tavlin” book series, filled with stories, wit and hundreds of divrei Torah, including the brand new “Torah Tavlin Yamim Noraim” in stores everywhere. You’ll love this popular series. Also look for his book, “Heroes of Spirit,” containing one hundred fascinating stories on the Holocaust. They are fantastic gifts, available in all Judaica bookstores and online at http://israelbookshoppublications.com. To receive Rabbi Hoffman’s weekly “Torah Tavlin” sheet on the parsha, e-mail Torahtavlin@yahoo.com