The Final Moments of the Life of Rav Elchonon Wasserman Hy”d: Eyewitness Accounts

“Rav Elchonon.” These two words contain a world of meaning. Rav Elchonon Wasserman was a gadol baTorah, leader of his generation, the rabbon shel kol bnei hagolah. Today, when we read the words he wrote over seventy years ago, it seems that he possessed he gift of prophecy.

Rav Elchonon was a talmid of the greatest luminaries of that generation, the pride and joy of Telz and Brisk, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ohel Torah in Baranovitch, and one of the foremost Torah leaders in the Jewish world. He was a man who waged the battles of Hashem and of the Torah, and whose teachings were collected in such classic works as Kovetz Shiurim and Kovetz Maamarim. The story of his martyrdom has long been recorded in works of history and is read with reverence and awe.

It was the month of Tammuz, after the Shabbos of Parshas Chukas, in the year 5701 (1941). That is what we know, but some details are unclear: Was he taken to his death on Sunday, the 11th of Tammuz, or on Monday, the 12th? And was he murdered on the day he was captured or on the next day? Furthermore, did his death take place before or after shkiah? All of this affects the question of when his yahrtzeit is. In several places, I saw that historians determined that the date of his death was the 11th of Tammuz, 5701, but that is clearly a mistake. Other sources place it on the 13th of Tammuz based on the assumption that he was taken away on Monday and was murdered at night. That may be correct, but some dispute that version of the story.

Rav Elchonon viewed the Chofetz Chaim as his rebbi. In many of his writings, he refers to him as “hakadosh baal haChofetz Chaim zt”l.” He once remarked, “It is impossible for us to perceive the full scope of the Chofetz Chaim’s greatness, since he used his brilliant mind to determine how to conceal his special qualities. How can we, with our puny intellects, hope to outsmart him?”

Rav Mordechai Zuckerman zt”l, another talmid of Radin, knew Rav Elchonon well. To this, he added, “Rav Elchonon’s face was always aflame with his burning yiras Shomayim, but the Chofetz Chaim showed no external signs of his greatness.” In a similar vein, he once remarked, “Rav Elchonon was visibly a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim, but the Chofetz Chaim, whose greatness was hidden, gave no sign of being the rebbi.”

The talmidim of the yeshiva in Radin grew accustomed to seeing Rav Elchonon attend the Chofetz Chaim’s drashos. Rav Elchonon would drink in his rebbi’s words, reviewing them over and over. Once, on the Yomim Noraim, a talmid commented that the Chofetz Chaim had repeated verbatim a drashah he had delivered the year before. Rav Elchonon disagreed. “This year,” he said, “there were eight new words.”

Rav Mordechai once met Rav Elchonon on a street in Vilna and introduced himself as a talmid from the yeshiva in Radin. Upon hearing this, Rav Elchonon asked Rav Mordechai to accompany him to the home of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky. Rav Chaim Ozer immediately recognized Rav Mordechai, and said to Rav Elchonon in a somewhat reproachful tone, “Why are you bringing me a bochur who is immersed in learning?” It soon became clear that Rav Chaim Ozer had asked Rav Elchonon to find a yeshiva bochur who could assist him; nevertheless, despite the passage of years, he had not forgotten Rav Mordechai’s stellar hasmadah during his years in Radin.

• • • • •

Everyone agrees on where and how it happened: Rav Elchonon was taken by bloodthirsty Lithuanian soldiers from the home of Rav Avrohom Grodzensky Hy”d. In her book, Ve’emunascha Baleilos, Rebbetzin Wolbe, Rav Avrohom’s daughter, relates, “On one of the days after the pogrom, when we were still holed up in our house behind locked doors, and while rabbonim, yungeleit and bochurim slept and learned in pairs in every room of the house, three Lithuanian partisans with their guns drawn suddenly burst into the house. They opened the front door abruptly, and they were inside the house before we could react. In the entranceway, Rav Elchonon Wasserman Hy”d was standing (not sitting) and learning with a chavrusah. The Lithuanians were enraged by this sight of Jewish men, especially rabbonim, who were still learning. Aiming their weapons at him, they began screaming, ‘Don’t move!’

“They ran wildly from room to room, even to the second story, and they gathered all the men they found. Some of the men managed to hide and were not discovered. Roaring like wild beasts, the soldiers gathered thirteen men, including my beloved brother Zev, who was only 21 years old; my uncle, Reb Shabsi Vernikovsky, who was a rebbi at the yeshiva of Lomza, along with his son Mordechai; and, of course, Rav Elchonon Wasserman. We, the women and girls, begged the cruel Lithuanians not to take them away. I was the oldest among the girls and I tried to explain to them that rabbonim were not Communists.”

Rebbetzin Wolbe describes how she pleaded with the murderous soldiers to spare Rav Elchonon’s life. The soldiers replied that they would accept her claims if she showed them documents to prove them. The young Rivka Grodzensky raced up the stairs to find some sort of evidence that they were not Communist agents. As she looked through the window into the inner courtyard of the house, though, she saw all the men being taken at gunpoint to their deaths.

At the end of that chapter, Rebbetzin Wolbe relates, “We found out only later that on that very day, those 13 rabbonim and bnei Torah met their deaths al kiddush Hashem. It was the 12th of Tammuz, 5701, and we were told that the place where they were murdered was the Seventh Fort.” According to her memories and the accounts they received at the time, the men were taken into captivity on Monday and were murdered that very day, before nightfall. To this day, the rebbetzin observes her brother’s yahrtzeit on the 12th of Tammuz.

Rav Zuckerman was also in Kovna at the time, and his own memoirs describe the tragic spring season of the year 5701, when Lithuania was conquered by the Germans. Rav Zuckerman describes the thunderous explosions that were heard as the German fighter jets bombed the area. He recalled how the Jews of Slabodka and Kovna fled to the nearby towns, fearing both the German bombs and the pogroms. He himself, though, did not escape. “I had nowhere to go,” he explained.

Rav Zuckerman’s memoirs also contain a chilling description of the sudden cruelty displayed by the Lithuanians: “For hundreds of years, the Jews of Lithuania maintained good relations with their non-Jewish neighbors. But when the Germans conquered Lithuania, the non-Jews suddenly changed their attitudes. All of a sudden, the endless depths of hatred that had been hidden in their hearts were exposed. Their brutality toward their former neighbors was even greater than the cruelty of the Germans!”

• • • • •

The month of Tammuz was one of the times when the anti-Semitism in Kovna reached its peak. Rav Mordechai relates, “Just a few days later, the Lithuanian rioters had reached the pinnacle of their cruelty. On the night between Wednesday and Thursday, the evening of the first of Tammuz, 5701, the partisans crossed the bridge leading from Kovna to Slabodka and began attacking the Jews.

“The rabble that arrived in Slabodka included members of the cream of Lithuanian society: students of universities and gymnasiums who were suddenly transformed from educated, advanced human beings into wild predatory beasts. Armed with rifles, knives and axes, they made their way from house to house, mercilessly slaughtering the young and the elderly, mothers and small children alike. Over one thousand Jews were murdered in cold blood on that awful night. One of the dead was the rov of Slabodka, Rav Zalman Osovsky, who was murdered by a Lithuanian marauder who broke into his home while he was sitting and learning Torah. The glorious sight of the rov sitting before an open Gemara, immersed in his learning, infuriated the beastly murderer…

“Another victim of those riots was Rav Yonah Karpilov, the illuy who was known in the yeshiva world by his nickname, ‘Yonah Minsker.’ He was a talmid of Yeshivas Mir, who had remained in Kovna after the yeshiva departed for faraway Shanghai. He was murdered at the entrance to the yeshiva building. When our master and rebbi, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, was informed of his death, he wept bitterly and exclaimed, ‘Woe to the land, for a great man is gone. We have lost a piece of the Torah!’”

Over the following nights, there were more acts of violence committed by Lithuanian rioters in other parts of the city. The murders were accompanied by unspeakable acts of barbarity. Homes were torched with their residents still inside. People were drowned in the Viliya River. Over 2,000 people lost their lives in these riots in all sorts of barbaric ways. The men of the chevrah kadishah worked with great mesirus nefesh, literally taking their lives into their own hands as they went from home to home to collect the dead and bury them in the old cemetery in Slabodka.

In her book, Rebbetzin Wolbe describes how the family fled from Slabodka and wandered from town to town. The fleeing Jews hid in barns, until her father decided that it was time to return home. “The sounds of explosions had stopped, and Abba and the other rabbonim decided that there was no reason to continue wandering. It was time to go home. They hired wagons and made their way to Ponyero Street via a convoluted route.

“The wagons traveling on the road attracted the gentiles’ attention. We received some very strange looks. Some stared at us hatefully, while others looked at us with pity. We didn’t understand the meaning of their expressions. But then a goy came to us and said quietly, ‘Don’t go to the city; you will all be slaughtered.’ We didn’t believe him and we kept going. But we were frightened by the cruel glares that we received, and we decided to travel through the back roads rather than taking the ordinary route to the city. Finally, we reached the backyard of our home. It was good to be back in our own house again. Night fell and we lay down in our beds and fell asleep immediately.”

Rav Mordechai, too, recalled the return of Rav Avrohom Grodzensky and his companions. “Rav Avrohom and his family returned to their home about two days after they set out to look for a place of refuge in the surrounding towns, after they did not find a place of lodging that offered them even the most minimal accommodations. The Lithuanian farmers were afraid to bring them into their homes, and only reluctantly agreed to give them a place to sleep in a grain silo. The German bombing of Kovna also ceased, and it seemed that the immediate danger had passed. But the dreadful pogrom began just a few hours after Rav Avrohom returned home, and bloodshed swept through the streets of Slabodka. Miraculously, the rioters did not break into Rav Avrohom’s home. A yeshiva bochur who was hiding in the attic at that time heard the Lithuanians passing by the house and saying to each other, ‘The rov lives here. We won’t go inside.’

“That pogrom was only a sign of what was yet to come. It was a dreadful time, and the Jews suffered terribly at the hands of the Lithuanians. Under the pretense of looking for Jewish Communists, the Lithuanian rioters set out on a vicious hunt for all the Jews of Kovna. Over a period of about two weeks, the first half of Tammuz 5701, close to 6,000 Jewish men, women and children were captured and imprisoned in the Seventh Fort.

“The men were locked up throughout those days in the courtyard of the fort, under the open sky and the blazing summer sun. As a show of ‘mercy,’ the women and children were permitted to enter the building itself. The Lithuanian rioters were not content with rounding up masses of Jews. They also looted and plundered their homes, desecrating the shuls and destroying Sifrei Torah.

“At the end of those two dreadful weeks, on the 12th of Tammuz, 5701, the women and children were released from the Seventh Fort, and the 3,000 or so remaining men were mercilessly gunned down in the courtyard by the German Gestapo and their Lithuanian cohorts.”

• • • • •

With that, Rav Mordechai comes to his account of how Rav Elchonon was taken away to meet his death. “Rav Elchonon’s yeshiva had left Vilna for Smilishoki,” he relates. “When he found out that the Bolsheviks were looking for him and planning to torment him, he fled to Kovna and stayed at the home of Rav Aryeh Malkiel Friedman [father-in-law of Rav Shneur Kotler, Rav Chaim Sarna, and Rav Yaakov Volpe], who lived in the apartment above Rav Avrohom Grodzensky.

“Rav Elchonon made tremendous efforts to leave the blood-soaked continent of Europe, but when he finally managed to obtain a visa, his son, Rav Naftoli, broke his leg, which delayed his departure. Meanwhile, the Germans conquered Lithuania and it became impossible to leave the country.

“During the daytime, Rav Elchonon learned at the home of Rav Avrohom Grodzensky which served as a makeshift bais medrash, while the bnei yeshivos who lived in the area would gather there from time to time and take solace in the company of the gedolei Torah who had gathered there.” Those bnei yeshivos included Rav Mordechai himself.

One of Rav Mordechai’s recollections of those days is an incident when Rav Avrohom asked Rav Elchonon to deliver a shiur in halachah. “A shiur?” Rav Elchonon exclaimed. “In these turbulent times?”

But Rav Avrohom was insistent. “I am not asking for just any shiur. I am asking for you to deliver a shiur on the topic of the hour – the sugya of kiddush Hashem!”

Rav Elchonon acquiesced to the request and asked for time to prepare the shiur. He closeted himself in his room for a long time, and when he finally emerged, his face was aflame with passion. He delivered his shiur, a profound lecture on the subject of kiddush Hashem, with great reverence. “A few days later,” Rav Mordechai adds, “on Sunday, the 11th of Tammuz, three Lithuanian murderers burst into Rav Avrohom’s home. Rav Elchonon was standing in the vestibule and learning with Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Zaks. Rav Elchonon and another 12 talmidei chachomim and tzaddikim who were in the house at the time, and who did not have an opportunity to escape and hide, were taken away to the Seventh Fort.

“Throughout this time, Rav Avrohom was lying on the sofa in the room, consumed by sorrow and immersed in his thoughts. The intruders thought that he was ill, and since they didn’t have a car with them, they did not take him away. So it was that he was saved, bechasdei shomayim, for just a few more years, to light up those dark days for the bnei aliyah who gathered around him.”

The group of 13 kedoshim who were seized that day included the bochur Zev (Velvel) Grodzensky, who was 21 years old; Rav Moshe Chaim Zaks and his son; Rav Moshe Reiss, Rav Dovid Goder, Rav Shabsai Vernikovsky and his son, Mordechai; Rav Yitzchok Gefen, and others. They were part of a group of about 3,000 Jews from Kovna and the surrounding areas who were rounded up and herded into the Seventh Fort. The prisoners were held in the courtyard of the fort for about a day and a half, kept in the heat of the blazing sun and lacking any food or drink. They were packed so densely into the courtyard that they were unable to even sit. Only the women and children were allowed inside the building.

Rav Mordechai’s account concludes: “The next day, on the night leading into Tuesday, the 13th of Tammuz, 5701, those holy tzaddikim were murdered in the Seventh Fort, along with 3,000 other Jews who were seized by the Lithuanians. May Hashem avenge their blood.”

Rebbetzin Wolbe is certain that the date of the murders was the 12th of Tammuz, the day when she observes her brother’s yahrtzeit, while Rav Mordechai was confident that the deaths occurred that night. According to his account, the yahrtzeit is the 13th of Tammuz.

• • • • •

I received a firsthand account from Rebbetzin Wolbe of those awful days. Over seventy years have passed, yet the events are still seared into her memory. “Rav Elchonon had come to Kovna in order arrange his papers,” she relates. “Everyone had fled from Mir to Vilna when it was annexed to Lithuania. Rav Elchonon came to the immigration offices in Kovna and had to stay for an extra day. I don’t remember if this was because they told him to come back again the next day or because his son broke his leg. In any event, he had to stay in Kovna for another day, so he came to us.

“He stayed in Rav Aryeh Malkiel Friedman’s apartment, which was above my parents’ home. I am certain that you have heard of him. He had three daughters. One was the wife of Rav Shneur Kotler, another – Rochel – was married to Rav Chaim Sarna, and the third is Rebbetzin Shulamis Volpe, may she live and be well. There was also another sister, who was very small at the time.”

The Friedman family initially lived in Memel, a town that was home to many businessmen, and Rav Elchonon stayed in their home whenever he visited the town to raise funds for his yeshiva. Now, when he found himself stuck in Kovna, he asked to spend a single night in their home. His stay ultimately became far longer than he had anticipated. “The next day,” the rebbetzin relates, “the war suddenly erupted, and he stayed in our building for several weeks.”

The Friedman family lived in a small rented apartment on the top floor of the building where the Grodzensky family resided. The family patriarch had opted to live in Kovna during their exile, near the yeshiva and its mashgiach. “We stayed in our apartment and he stayed in the Friedmans’ apartment, but since their apartment was very small, he spent most of the day learning in the vestibule.”

That vestibule opened into all the apartments, with the result that all the children in the building encountered Rav Elchonon on a daily basis throughout those weeks. Rav Elchonon generally learned with Avrohom Yitzchok Zaks, son of Rav Moshe Chaim Zaks, who was the rosh yeshiva of the yeshiva ketanah and lived in the building as well.

When the Lithuanians took Rav Elchonon away to his death, they took his chavrusah as well?

“Yes. They took him, and they took his father. They took all the men they found on every one of the four floors of the building.”

They searched the building?

“Yes. My brother and some other bochurim hid in an attic. We had a slanted roof, and there was a triangular space that was closed off. There were suitcases there, and there was a sofa behind the door. They hid there, but the Lithuanians found them.”

Rav Elchonon wasn’t hiding?

“No. They came suddenly, and he was learning in the entranceway, so there was no way that he could hide. They saw him right away. Only the bochurim who were upstairs were able to see the Lithuanians from the window, and they hid.”

The rebbetzin will never forget that horrible day and the burning hatred in the Lithuanians’ eyes. “The Germans gave the Lithuanians free reign to slaughter the Jews as they pleased,” she related. “They were like wild beasts.”

Your book says that they were killed on the 12th of Tammuz, but others say that it happened on the 13th of Tammuz.

“If that is what I wrote at the time, then I must have known it to be true. Today, I can no longer remember.”

When do you observe the yahrtzeit of your brother Velvel?

“On the twelfth of Tammuz.”

Were you the last person to see Rav Elchonon alive?

“I saw him then, along with Rebbetzin Rochel Sarna [daughter of Rav Aryeh Malkiel Friedman]. Then there were some people who saw him in the fort. One of them is a relative of yours, the brother of your Aunt Chiena [Yaakovson], who saw him just before he was murdered (see sidebar). I remember that Rochel went to bring him his shoes, since he wore slippers while he learned.”

Did he say anything when they took him away?

“No. He was silent.”

I see that you will remember those moments forever.

“Yes. I shudder whenever I remember them. I remember their wickedness, and how they stormed into the house with such vicious hostility. I can never forget that.”