20 Tammuz, 70 Years since the Churban of Telshe

Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch assumed the mantle of leadership of the yeshiva and kehillah of Telshe on Cheshvan 7, 5790 (late 1929) with the passing of his father, Rav Yosef Leib Bloch, who had in turn assumed the position of Rov in 1910 with the passing of his father-in-law, Rav Eliezer Gordon. Rav Avrohom Yitzchok was not the oldest son, but at Rav Yosef Leib’s levaya, his oldest son Rav Zalman Bloch, declared that he is giving up his right as the oldest son to assume the mantle of rov and rosh yeshiva to his younger brother, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok, because during his father’s lifetime, he had served as the “right-hand” in running the yeshiva and the town. The crowd in attendance was amazed at the complete self-sacrifice of Rav Zalman, a gaon in his own right. Rav Zalman became the dayan of the town as well as Menahel Ruchani of the yeshiva. Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch presided over the golden age of the yeshiva when it flourished into an institution that attracted hundreds of talmidim from all over the world.

 

Despite his relatively young age, (he was less than 40 when he took over the yeshiva) he immediately became known for his brilliant mind, quick grasp and absolutely phenomenal diligence. Indeed, even when he was a young bochur, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok was known as a tremendous ilui, who combined a lightening quick grasp with a deep, analytical mind. He was a tremendous masmid and during his teens he made a siyum on Shas and delivered a hadran (drasha celebrating the completion of Shas) that lasted for 3 full days! He once said, “I get so much pleasure from learning, I don’t know how it is possible to learn ‘Torah Lishmah’ – Torah for its own sake.”

 

Rav Avrohom Yitzchok was an amazing pedagogue. His shiurim were delivered in clear, concise language. If he would hear a talmid say a sevara that possessed even a kernel of truth, he would stop, develop that sevara, and show the talmid how he had accomplished the consummate task; he had brought down the truth, the ultimate truth of Torah to this world. Rav Avrohom Yitzchok was a giant who was not only a person who towered over those surrounding him with his greatness, but rather, he elevated those around him, lifting them up closer to his level, and imbuing them with the beauty and sweetness of true understanding in Torah and a deepening of emunah.

 

In addition to giving the highest shiur, he also gave shiurim to each of the lower levels, each according to their level of understanding. The highest shiur was given in his house. The following is a description given by one of his talmidim of that shiur:

 

The talmidim were already sitting in their places, ready and waiting to hear the shiur. The side door opens. With barely a sound, the Rosh Yeshiva enters. His tie loose, his face radiant and bathed in sweat from the intense toil and effort which he had just exerted in preparation for the shiur. He sits in his place without looking up at those seated before him. He begins to present his deep shiur. He himself is in a faraway world, completely devoted to give over “truth” in all its purity – the truth of Torah. The shiur is illuminating and sweet, the depth of the sugya flows from his mind and heart and enters the hearts of the listeners. Soon the talmidim begin bombarding the Rosh Yeshiva with questions. Slowly, he begins to take note of his surroundings. He comes down to the level of his beloved students and discusses the “sugya” with them.

 

Another student described the waning hours of Shabbos in his presence.

 

In the summer months he would invite the older students to his home towards the end of Shabbos. There they would sit together pouring their hearts out before Hashem in song. Afterwards, the students would ask him any question that they had on the weekly parsha. Following the questions, he would speak. Even though that speech was not directly connected to the preceding questions, in light of his words, all the questions would fall away, having been answered. These exalted moments and the pure and sweet tefillas Maariv that followed gave the students the spiritual energy to face the week ahead. The spiritual bond that was forged between rov and talmid was a bond that remained for the rest of their lives.

 

Under Rav Avrohom Yitzchok’s stewardship, the yeshiva blossomed and flourished to new heights. In the late 1930’s there were more than 400 talmidim in Telshe. Although the lions’ share of talmidim came from Eastern Europe there were many others from Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, The United States, South Africa and even Eretz Yisroel.

 

The Beginning of Telshe

 

Rav Avrohom Yitzchok was the last rov of Telshe, and the yeshiva reached its zenith under his leadership. Nevertheless, all of his accomplishments were built on the edifice laid down by his two predecessors as rabbonim of Telshe. Indeed, there were those that said about the three rabbonim and roshei yeshiva of Malchus Telshe: Rav Eliezer Gordon laid the foundations and built it, Rav Yosef Leib erected an educational and pedagogical edifice on those foundations and Rav Avrohom Yitzchok, a harmonious blend of his father and grandfather, brought the Yeshiva to the height of its beauty and glory.

 
 

The Telshe Yeshiva was founded in 5635 (1875) and served as the local yeshiva for talmidim from Telshe and the nearby towns. In 1881 (5641), with the appointment of Rav Eliezer Gordon as rov of Telshe, the Yeshiva reached a turning point. Rav Leizer’s stimulating shiurim along with his steady guidance in the pathways of learning, coupled with his love and personal interest in the spiritual and physical well being of every talmid, soon began to attract the best minds from all over Lithuania. Perhaps the most outstanding quality of Rav Leizer Gordon, even for those who could not completely grasp his wide-ranging, deep shiurim, was his unparalleled ahavas haTorah. Rav Mordechai Gifter, late Rosh Yeshiva of Telshe, Cleveland, once related Rav Leizer’s own comment about his love of Torah. “When it comes to Torah, I am like an alcoholic who has a bottle of wine in front of him. Just as the ‘Shikkur’, the drunkard cannot refrain from drinking the wine, I too cannot refrain from drinking from the wellsprings of Torah.” Rav Gifter continued, “Just as a drunkard will never acknowledge that he has drunk too much and continues drinking, so too Rav Leizer was ‘Shikkur’, drunk from Torah.”

 

The following is another anecdote illustrating Rav Leizer’s unique love for Torah: In Telshe, unlike in most Lithuanian cities where the roles were split, the rov of the town was also the rosh yeshiva. By virtue of this dual position, the rov had a colossal spiritual influence on the entire population. When Rav Leizer heard about the great success of the new system of learning developed by his contemporary, Rav Chaim Brisker, he immediately invited him to become a member of the faculty of Telshe so as to transmit his unique system there. When Rav Chaim declined the invitation, Rav Leizer offered to vacate his position as rov and rosh yeshiva in order to give them to Rav Chaim so that he would come to teach in the yeshiva. His love of Torah was so tremendous that no sacrifice was too great, not even his own position as rov and rosh yeshiva, as long as it would enhance understanding of Torah. It was for this reason that when Rav Chaim Brisker married off his oldest son, he asked Rav Leizer to be the mesader kiddushin. He explained, “It is possible that there are others who are equal to him in scholarship, but he has no equal in his love for Torah!”

 

In 1910, while on a fundraising trip in London, England, Rav Leizer Gordon sustained a sudden heart attack and passed away there, far from his beloved yeshiva and talmidim. The yeshiva and rabbonus of Telshe were transferred into the capable hands of his son-in-law, Rav Yosef Leib Bloch.

 

At a young age, Rav Yosef Leib went to learn in the famous Talmud Torah of Kelm. There he came in contact with the first generation of baalei mussar, talmidim of Rav Yisroel Salanter, founder of the Mussar Movement. Their philosophy and personal example influenced him profoundly. While in Kelm, he learned under Rav Leizer Gordon who immediately recognized him as a special talmid and invested great efforts into him, insuring that he grew into a giant in his own right. When he became of age, Rav Leizer took him as a son-in-law for his oldest daughter Chasya. After the engagement, he went to learn in the famed Yeshiva of Volozhin, where he became a talmid of the rosh yeshiva, the Netziv.

 

In 1886, his father-in-law appointed him as Maggid Shiur in the yeshiva. Already then, his tremendous pedagogic talent was evident. He immediately recognized that the class system prevalent in yeshivos at the time, where the entire yeshiva attended the same shiur, was leaving the younger students behind and holding the older students back. He therefore divided the yeshiva into five levels with a different Maggid Shiur for each one. The rosh yeshiva, Rav Leizer, gave the fifth level.

 

Telshe under Rav Yosef Leib Bloch

 

When Rav Yosef Leib became rosh yeshiva and rov in 1910, all of the qualities that he had to a certain extent hidden in the lifetime of his father-in-law were revealed. The beauty, the aristocracy and his amazing organizational skills made Telshe not only a Yeshiva, but a molder of men and hashkafos in the unique Telsher derech that Rav Yosef Leib had been so instrumental in fashioning. He was the living example of rabbinic royalty and was possessed of an iron inner self-control and discipline. Everything was done with foresight, every word was measured. He had a rigid schedule with times set aside for everything, davening, learning, sleeping, waking, resting, walking, and the like. He was so punctual that the residents of Telshe said they could set their watches according to his schedule. Another innovation of Rav Yosef Leib was that in addition to giving the highest shiur, he took it upon himself to deliver mussar shmuessen which he called Shiurei Daas. Shiurei Daas were not conventional mussar shmuessen, rather they were, as the name implies, shiurim in daas hashkafa, philosophy, all geared to practical implementations of the lofty concepts espoused.

 

During that time in Europe, a yeshiva bochur was looked down upon by many. Rav Yosef Leib’s personality and influence raised the prestige of yeshiva students in the eyes of the world. He insisted that a member of the yeshiva be called the more honorable term “yeshiva man” instead of the somewhat condescending title of “yeshiva bochur”.

 

Rav Yosef Leib’s efforts were not limited to running the Yeshiva. He founded and presided over an entire network of educational institutions so that under his stewardship, Telshe encompassed the full gamut of educational institutions for both men and women. Soon hundreds, from all over Europe and even from outside of Europe began to flock to Telshe.

 

In 1920, he founded the “Mechina” – a the preparatory yeshiva catering to younger talmidim who were not old enough nor on the level to enter the yeshiva. Eventually, because of its popularity and numerous applicants, a separate building was erected to house the Mechina. Around the same time, an elementary school was opened for girls.

 

Beis Hamedrash L’Morim Yavneh Teachers Seminary opened in Telshe in 1925 with a four year program teaching pedagogy and a comprehensive knowledge of Tanach, language, math and history to enable its young men to become the future teachers of the Jewish People.

 

In 1927, Yavneh opened a “Jewish Gymnasium” for girls where girls could obtain a secular education from a Torah hashkafa, in a completely Torah-true atmosphere.

 

Kollel Harabbonim, which he founded in 1929, was made for motivated scholars with Rabbinic ordination to further their studies in preparation for the Rabbinate.

 

Beis Hamedrash L’Moros Yavneh, the Woman’s Teachers Seminary opened in 1930. The seminary catered to post high school age girls, teaching requisite teaching skills. Yavneh graduates spread all across Poland and eventually to America educating generations of girls in the pathways of Yiddishkeit.

 

Under the leadership of Rav Yosef Leib, Telshe blossomed becoming not only became a yeshiva, but one of Europe’s great Torah centers. Thousands came from all over to learn in the wide-ranging educational institutions which he started.

 

Telshe under the Communist Jackboot

 

In 1940, the Bolshevik Russians annexed Lithuania and thus the city of Telshe fell under rabid anti-religious Communist jurisdiction. It wasn’t long before the Communists’ decrees of shmad began to be felt. On 24 Tammuz, 1940, the first major blow fell. The government closed the yeshiva building and declared it government property, necessary for use as a military psychiatric hospital. With heartrending tears, the yeshiva was forced to remove all of the seforim, tables, furniture from the beautiful large building to the smaller mechina —younger division, building. That night, after everything had been removed except for the sifrei Torah, the bochurim remained learning in the building for the entire night. In the morning they davened and read from the sefer Torah for the last time. After davening, as the Communists urged the bochurim to leave the building for the last time, Rav Elya Meir Bloch, who also served as a rosh yeshiva, went to the Aron Kodesh and, with copious tears, began to remove the sifrei Torah for the last time. Rav Elya Meir lifted up his hands and said, “Ribono Shel Olam, this is the third time that I have been forced to remove the sifrei Torah from the Aron Kodesh of the holy yeshiva. The first time was during the massive fire in Telshe when the yeshiva was under the leadership of my grandfather, Rav Eliezer Gordon. The next time was during World War I when the yeshiva was forced to flee. Now, at this third time, my deep tefillah to You, Ribono Shel Olam, is that just as You helped me restore the sifrei Torah to the holy Aron Kodesh of the Yeshiva the previous two times, so too, should I be able to once again return the holy sifrei Torah to the Aron Kodesh of the Yeshiva!”

 

Yes, his tefillah was answered…partially.
 

 

No, he never did merit returning those sifrei Torah to the yeshiva in Lithuania.

 

However, he, together with his brother-in-law, Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz, did merit replanting Telshe in Cleveland, Ohio… but until then much blood, tears, and tragedy would befall Telshe together with Am Yisroel in Europe. Only very few, literally a handful from the original Telshe would merit seeing the nechama, the comfort of transplanting Telshe to America… the rest would be taken al kiddush Hashem together with the more than 6 million kedoshim of Europe.

 

Throughout the two years of Communist rule, new gezeiros hampering the running of the yeshiva were constantly instituted. Eventually, the yeshiva was forced to go underground and function illegally. At that point, two faculty members of the yeshiva, Rav Elya Meir Bloch and Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz, were sent to America to assess the feasibility of transferring the yeshiva to the United States.

 

The Annihilation of Telshe: The Story of Exalted Kiddush Hashem under the Worst of Circumstances

 

On Sivan 25, 1941, the German Army conquered Telshe and drove out the Communists. They immediately embarked on their plan to annihilate the Jews. A few days later, on the first day of Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, the local anti-Semitic gentiles, realizing that no one would stop them, beat and wounded the Jews of Telshe, stealing and plundering their possessions. The following day, the Telsher Rov looked out of his window and saw German soldiers rounding up a massive crowd of Jews, driving them out towards Rayan, a nearby village.

 

The Germans had grabbed whomever they found in the streets, among them the rov’s son Eliezer and brought them to the police station. After meticulously recording their names, they drove them out of town towards Rayan. Upon seeing this procession, the rov was shaken to the very depths of his soul. He immediately arranged a delegation to petition the local Bishop to help the prisoners. All of his efforts were in vain. That night, the house of the rov was dark with only the light of a single candle casting a pall of light in his inner room. The pain and heartache made it impossible for him to learn. In order to concentrate, he asked his daughter to read to him from the Gemara.

 

The next day, erev Shabbos, brought SS soldiers to the house of the rov. They brought Rav Avrohom Yitzchok and his family to the main Telshe marketplace, where a large segment of the community was already lined up in rows. The Nazis lined the rabbonim up in the front row and began to taunt and abuse them. The rov did not react. Despite the loaded guns aimed at the rabbonim, their thoughts were focused on purifying themselves to die al Kiddush Hashem. The Rov turned towards the crowd of Jews. Completely composed, with a serenity of spirit, he addressed them. He urged them to do a full teshuvah and to prepare to give their lives al Kiddush Hashem. The entire town then recited the Vidui, word by word together with their beloved rov. The power of the rov’s strength and serenity of spirit shocked even the callous Nazis and they stopped laughing. They had met with the eternal truth of the Jewish Nation.

 

Shortly before the onset of Shabbos, the Germans called the rov and told him to inform those gathered that they wished to “test their ammunition”. The rov returned to his flock saying, “We are in awesome danger. Let us return to our Father in Heaven. Our only hope is through teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah. Let us all, young and old alike, accept upon ourselves that if we merit living, we will keep Shabbos, kashrus and family purity.” The whole congregation, even those who had slipped in their observance under the Communist influence, raised their hands to Heaven as one and declared, “We accept upon ourselves the mitzvos.” All present felt as if they were standing in front of Har Sinai declaring Naaseh V’Nishma.

 

The rov then began to daven Mincha and the entire congregation joined in. As the sun set, the rov commanded that Shabbos be accepted with joy. After Kabbalas Shabbos, the rov commanded that Tehillim be recited. The cries throughout the recital of Tehillim pierced the heavens. Everybody, young and old alike, davened a heartfelt, pure Tefillas Maariv, feeling a closeness to Hashem which they had never before felt.

 

The Nazis then commanded the women to return to their homes. They also gave the rov permission to return to his home. He refused. “I will remain with my flock,” he stated simply and forcefully. He knew that this was possibly the last time he would see his family, yet when he parted with them, his entire heart remained focused on his congregation, giving them the strength and succor to meet the ordeal that lay ahead.

 

For three weeks the rov, together with the other men in the community, were forced to work at hard labor in the adjacent city of Rayan. The rov himself did not desist from learning. Even at such a time when the “sword was at their necks”, his toil and diligence in Torah did not falter. As always, then too, he recorded his chiddushei Torah. On Tammuz 19, a Gestapo officer arrived, sword in hand and coldly informed all that this was their last day on earth.

 

The men were lined up in rows and the Germans began to beat them. They were forced to run and fall, run and fall without a stop, all the while being mercilessly beaten with truncheons. The rov and his brother, Rav Zalman, who were themselves weak, tried to support the elderly father-in-law of Rav Elya Meir Bloch, Rav Aryeh Moshe Kaplan, and carried him as they ran with him. At the end of this torturous, degrading exercise, the rov, covered in dirt and completely exhausted, entered his tent and lifted his hands to heaven saying, “Ribbono Shel Olam, grois bist du, un grois zenen dyne maasim – You are righteous and Your actions are righteous and just.” At that exalted moment, the rov, too weak to look in his sefer, asked his daughter (Rebbetzin Ausband, shetichye) to read for him from the Rambam’s laws of kiddush Hashem and thus, as they prepared for kiddush Hashem, his daughter read one halacha after another.

 

Tammuz 20, was his last day on earth, the last day of the entire community of Telshe, the rabbonim, the kollel, the bnei yeshiva and the bnei mechina. 5:00am, four Nazi officers came to the rov’s tent and commanded him and all other males to get ready to go to “work”, avodah. Indeed, he was ready for avodah, for the true and eternal avodas Hashem of kiddush Hashem. When his family tried to give him some food to take along, he declined, only requesting some water to wash his hands.

 

A few minutes later, hair-raising shots resounded from the forest. From the mass grave, the powerful voice of the rov was heard, ringing, “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad!”

 

Less than one month later, on Elul 7, in a nearby village, the women of Telshe were also murdered.

 

From the entire Telshe Yeshiva, a group of sixteen students escaped Russia, eight of whom eventually perished in Siberia. From the other eight some ended up in Eretz Yisrael and others ultimately came to America.

 

Telshe, Lithuania ceased to exist. The streets of Telshe teeming with talmidei chachomim, lay desolate. The fields around Telshe where bochurim would walk while “talking in learning” lay forlorn, soaked with the blood of its martyrs.

 

The geographical town of Telshe is no more. The spiritual legacy of Telshe however, lives on.