Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Book Review

Rabbi Ephraim Oshry conducts a memorial service

“The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry”
By HaRav Efrayim Oshri z”l
Translated by Yehoshua Lehman
Judaica Press, 1995

I have yet to read all of the book, but what I have read is enough for me to comment on. I had heard much about Rabbi Oshri, and know a son and son-in-law of his, but I never know the story behind the family. Truthfully, What I had seen and been taught about “Litvaks”, Litvishe Yidden, is a crime, but to that today’s “representatives” of Litvaks carry much of the blame, just as some Lubavitchers do a terrible job representing the Rebbe and Chassidus Chabad לדאבוננו הרב. We have been misled about these fine Yidden, and by “we” I mean all non-Litvisher.

Another point important to make is that although books like “Making of a Godol” weren’t meant to tell the heroic story of Jews during the Holocaust, they still have much to learn. They manage to go out of their way to criticize, belittle, and even embarrass friends of their family, Yeshiva Chaverim, and colleagues, all in the name of “truth”. Rabbi Oshry, even when discussing the history of certain towns, and even when mentioning totally irreligious Jews, rises above it all and does nothing of the kind. He mentions their heroics and even their Mesiras Nefesh for Yiddishkeit, which they had, and avoids the differences they had. I’m not sanctioning a total coverup of events, but there is a better way to go about it.

He begins by describing the initial days of the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, until then occupied by the Soviets, in June 1941, and how the Lithanian Goyim could not wait to get their hands on their Jewish neighbors. Even before the Germans had fully organized, the Litvishe Rotzchim were murdering with a brutality the Arabs in Chevron could’ve only hoped for.

That year June 22, the date of the German attack codenamed operation Barabossa, coincided with 27 Sivan. The next day a pogrom of never-before-seen proportions was carried out by their Christain neighbors and “friends”. In Kovno-Slabodka hundreds and hundreds of people were dragged out of their homes, off the streets, and out of Shuls, and beaten, stabbed, and literally chopped to death in the most calculated and gruesome ways by their Lithuanian neighbors without much German help at all.

The Slabodka Yeshivah, at the corner of Glezer and Furman Streets had to cease operations. The Bochurim just picked up and ran for their lives. REO writes: “Never will I forget that last morning, the 28th of Sivan 5701, June 23, 1941. On this day we stopped learning at the Slabodka Yeshivah; the sound of Torah study was heard for the final time on the corner of Glezer and Furman Streets." [ At that time, across the Atlantic, the Rebbe was arriving in New York, having escaped the Nazis and their Vichy allies in France.]

I cry for these Ballebatim, Rabbonim, Baalei Melochoh, Yeshivaleit, Bocherim, mener, vayber, un kinder, who have nobody to tell their story nor to carry on their traditions in this commercialized, cookie-cutter world of ours.

Excuse me if I’m a bit incoherent here, I’m still only an amateur “book critic”.

הרנינו גוים עמו כי דם עבדיו יקום ונקם ישוב לצריו וכפר אדמתו עמו


Anonymous said...

There are various comments that could be made on this. Maybe I will make a hascholo, biezras Hashem and others (vos kennen dem inyan) can be mamshich.

1) For the purpose of discussing Litvaks, we should first define 'vos meint a Litvishe Yid'. Using the borders of the present day (and then) state of Lithuania to define Litvaks would be very insufficient and not do them justice. I believe I once heard on a tape from Rabbi Berel Wein shlita a relevant story, along these lines. After WWI there was a meeting of politicians to discuss the future map of Europe. Lithuania and Poland were being reborn then as independent states. The question was how and where to draw the borders. The negotiator for Lithuania asked for all the territory where the Jews were considered Litvaks. He didn't get that, but it underscores the point that Lita, for Jewish purposes, is alot more than just the current (and then) state of Lithuania. The book under discussion is focused on the interwar Lithuanian state, as I recall. That gives a picture, but only a partial one. What also has to be taken into consideration, is that a very large amount of Litvishe Yidden had already left der alter heim by then and also that life had changed alot in the late 19th and early 20th centuries limisporom. Emigration, urbanization, various the Lita then was not the Lita of the Vilna Gaon, Rav Chaim Volohziner or even the Netziv.

2) Kurenitzer has pointed out in the past, and he seems very right in it, that it's a serious mistake to assume that the present-day 'Yeshivishe/Litvishe' velt is representative of typical Litvishe yiddentum of the past. Some people think that a 'Litvishe' kayllel yungerman of today is what a regular Litvak was like in der alter heim. That is not so. In der alter heim, Yeshivaleit were only a small percentage of the population, and kayllel yungeleit even more so. Ruba diruba of Litvishe yidden were baalei batim. Avader there were some things that were the same, such as the love of learning, stress on limud haTayreh and chochmo, simple life, not going for extravagant posessions, etc.

Eliach's book on Eishyshok is a very good portrait of this world, as I recall. Also yizkor books in general, I think, can give some good ideas about how things were.

Anonymous said...

H.T. writes "We have been misled about these fine Yidden, and by “we” I mean all non-Litvisher."
I was not misled by the "zichronos of the RaYatz" I learned the Holy sefer chofetz Chaim Hilchos Loshen Hora . and i was saved from the most notorious Misleader

Hirshel Tzig - הירשל ציג said...

1) I think we can safely say that "jaycone" iz fun di "naye litvishe". His Ahavas Yisroel is duch mayredik.

2) re: Eliach/Eishishok. Her book, for some reason, has really gotten the wrath of many current-day Poles and Lithuanians. They say that she can't possibly remember all that she claims to, since she was 7 years old at the time of the German occupation.

3) re: borders etc. I guess we speak mostly of interwar Lithuania is: a) because of the collaboration of their X-tian neighbors. b) A portion of Old Lita was Poland and thus occupied already in 1939. The parts that became Belarus suffered no less.

Anonymous said...

i think that there is a letter from the rebbi z"l why the tanya is for everone whe the AR writes "ach bayodi vmakura kamina" since we all learn on the litvishe derach halimud

Hirshel Tzig - הירשל ציג said...


can you elaborate and speak more clearly, please?

Anonymous said...

Cis completely on target.
In Lita (including Reisen and Western White russia) the Yeshiva world was a tiny part of the Jewish population. Let me mention other Orthodox segments : Chassidim of Chabad, Slonim, Koidenov, Stolin, vechuli; The baal haboys from the older generation who was not Yeshiva trained but learnt in the kloiz or Bm zvisen Mincha und Maariv.The younger working man striving for frumkayt organized in the local chapters of Tifferes bachurim . The Mizrchi people. Again i will state the son of the Heiliker Chofetz Chaim Rav Leib Poupko was president of the Polish Mizrach !
And sadly I will add that many of the younger Litvishe Yidden were so lost by the poverty and discrimination that they abandoned our religion. But as a great professor pointed out : there was no country where the Jews were more Jewish yet not so religious. Almost all Jews spoke Yiddish, no intermarriage , no Shmad etc. Cmpare these to Poland and Hungary.

Anonymous said...

I spoke to Rav Oschry for hours . he waslonely. Lonely enough that he spoke to an am haaretz like myself .
His children were all Galitzianer chasidim, as he had little regard for the American yeshivas and their ability to pass on authentic Yidishkeit to the new generation besides Lomdus.
The rav had wonderful things to say about Anash in the real Lita n kovna and other towns. from a distance one could tell the frum mahus of a Lubavitcher Yid.
He was a wonderful darshan, a fine writer a posek a but he never made it here as he refused to join 1 of the zeromim and refused to join the American Bnai Tourah crowd as he called them.

Hirshel Tzig - הירשל ציג said...


I know his sons and eidem and I always thought to myself: how can they be the children of this durch un durch Litvak?

I would've imagined that he would find his place more in Eretz Yisroel, at least there he'd have some zecher of Slabodka like Reb Eizik Sher and other Kovner Yidden.

Anonymous said...

Today there are hardly any real Litvishe Yidden in the yeshiva world besides the roshe yeshiva. The average student in lakewood is of Hungarian extraction , or of German extracton , chassiidc extraction, but few people who are real Litvakes and were yonek the Litvishe derech (hachaim not derech halimud whatever that is)from their parents.
How many people under 70 speak a real litvishe Yidish, who wears the square yarmulka that marked the frum Litvishe yid, vechuli ?
Alas although my parents were from Lita, my father came from Chasidic stock so I too do not know the Olamshe spirit of things , as my grandparents etc were all killed. But Chabad was as much part of Lita as the GRA!!!And I am proud to be a Litvak and a person mIGeza Chabad.
Yes there was strife with chasidim , but everyone inter married.By 1920 Chasidim were playing a leading role in the Kressy and the state of lithunia as their retention rate was much greater than the eylem.
Lithuanian jEws were "vareme "Yidden, my rebbe rav Shimen Romm described with nostalgia the scenes bein mincha und maariv as Yidden sat around various tables studying the Ein yankev or the chai Odom or di blatt as he called it.There were poshute yidden not the world's greatest learners who needed a dose of kavod haTore klomersht every day !
Yet the poshute Yid revered the Chafetz Chaim, Reb Chaim Ozer, Reb Elchonon,the Gerer rebbe and others. But at the same time secyular leaders like Dr.Zemach Shabad, Jabotinsky and Prilutski were also admired and Rabbi Isaac Rubinstein the Mizrachi leader and chief rabbi of Vilna was a hero to many .
Read Chaim Grade's Zemach Atlas (the real one ) for a delicious description of Lithuanian Jewry of all stripes.
Yasher kayach

Anonymous said...

Rav Oshry correctly smelled that the American yeshivos were going to produce an American ben tore with Lomdus sans Yiddish and the whle mahus of the Litvisher Yid.
hence he married a baas kedoshim and all his children are chasidim. They speak Yiddish and carry on the messorah.His son in law a Satmarer is the new rav of BMH a shul in very poor shape in all ways.
I never understood why men like Rabbi Gifter ould not produce litvisher lomdim with a stresson authenticity . Who knows. The roshim were ready to abnadon all minhogim etc for Lomdus.
Let the daas hakohol decide if it was worth the price.
Hashem yinkom damam shel kol hakedoshim 1939-1945 bimhere venizke lekabel es Mashiach zidkeynu bekarov mamash.

Anonymous said...

Kurentizer:Sorry, you are missing a part of the story regarding Rav Oushrie's kids.
He married late, after the war.His rebbetzen was of Hungarian chasidic stock and her brother was a rebbe.As young kids they went to the Belzer chaider on the East Side.Rav Oushri remained a very European rabbi, knew little english , so it was quite natural that his kids moved to their chaSidic moms side.Their uncle who was a rebbe may have been childless and therefore could have been even closer with the kids.I may be mistaken about this detail

Anonymous said...

VML . I think you and I are saying the same thing with a different kvetch.. But its natural for children to follow their father's derech NOT their mothers.
In this case it was a "bekeyvondike" decsion by the rav to raise his kids in the chasidic derech. They did not go to RJJ or MTJ both of which were on the LES or later to the Mir or Telz, ratehr to Chasidic chedorim and schools.
This was not natural. I am hard pressed to think of another Lithuanian rav all of whose children became chasidim , with the father's approval.
Furthermore I doubt there was a Belzer Cheder in the LES in the 1960's 9THERE was a Belzer shtibel there for many years) when his kids were school age. Yes the uncle was a childless man but he was also a chasida u"perisha hardly the type to be a"father" figure to his very young nephews.
No this was a decsion by the rav to have his kids not become Amerikaner , and he would rather have them be Chasidim, speaking Yiddish than acculturated American Bnai Tora about whom he spoke shall we say not too highly.

Anonymous said...

The story of Rav Oshri's children is quite astounding. I heard that it was agreed around the time of the chassunah, that the children would be raised Chassidish, that it was like a tenai in the kiddushin.

Bemechilas kevayday, he cannot be seen as a total non-Chassidic Litvishe role model, since he didn't leave any descendants going in the Litvishe way - for whatever reason that was so, but limaaseh his descendants are not following in that derech. Who knows, maybe an einikel will come back someday.

Re the back and forth between vml and Kurenitzer about children going in the way of the father vs. with the way of mother's background - it's interesting. On the one hand, Rashi says in chumash that if someone's father is from one shevet and the mother from a different one, יקום על שבט אביו. On the other hand, the gemara says hanosey isha tzorich livdok biacheha, שרוב בנים דומים לאחי האם (there is an interesting vort from Rav Yankev Kamenetsky zt"l on this, but it may not be nogeia to this case). Even in English, there is a word that indicates that there is a special closeness children have to maternal uncles (their mother's brothers), more than other uncles (avuncular-see regular definition and shoresh at

Anonymous said...

Being a grandson of Harav Oshry ZTZ"L myself i can only wonder how many of you really knew him and understood his "gang", it is simply impposible to instill in children a real "litvishe" upbringing when everything around you is totaly different with not even one sole "frum and totaly commited speaks at least your language, so what he strived and achieved was to transfer to his kids the essence of what he was brought up with, on the contrary to the world's understanding my grandfather knew about galcian and hungarian jews still from europe having traveled to yeshivos all over europe and met lots of "gedolim" from the other side, he didn't oppose there culture at all as long as he felt that the main points are not missing, and thats how he succeeded