The Last Seder in Slaboka

There are moments when the preparations for Pesach seem so encumbered with the mundane we tend to lose sight of the essentials of this yom tov. To restore perspective, try reading the opening chapters of Faith In the Night by Rebbetzin Rivka Wolbe of Yerushalayim (Judaica Press).

Relive with the author her last Pesach in the Kovno ghetto a week after the horrifying Children’s Aktzia. Glimpse her family clinging to faith in the darkest night. Sit around the table with the surviving members of her family and the yeshiva students at their meager seder, reciting the Hagadah as death and terror stalked them. “Papa tried to conduct the seder as he always had…,” Rebbetzin Wolbe recalled. “Hoh lachma anya resounded in the pitiful room…”

The author’s father was Rav Avrohom Grodzinsky, a saintly mussar personality in pre-war Europe and a leading disciple of the Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. After the Alter moved to Israel in 1924 to head Yeshiva Kenesses Yisroel in Chevron, Rav Grodzinsky took over the running of Yeshivas Slabodka in Kovno.

The young Rivka Grodzinsky was 16 at the time the Nazis occupied Lithuania. Three months after the invasion, the Nazis’ extermination plans for Lithuania’s Jews were in full swing. In town after town the Jews were driven from their homes and herded into crowded ghettos. These heavily guarded deathtraps enabled the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators to carry out selections, “aktzias,” deportations and massacres with relative ease.

Such was the fate of the tens of thousands of Kovno’s Jews who were marched to the Ninth Fort on the outskirts of the city and machine-gunned to death. Among them were Rav Elchonon Wasserman Hy’d, his son and other eminent Torah leaders and yeshiva students who had found refuge in the home of Rav Avrohom Grodzinsky. Rav Avrohom himself was inexplicably spared at this juncture but his son, Zev, was dragged off with the other prisoners.

A newspaper clipping from a publication Kol Torah, dated January 23rd 1947, records the testimony of a ghetto survivor about the intense Torah study that pervaded the Grodzinsky residence until the Lithuanians raided it.

“[The yeshivos no longer functioned] but in private homes, people continued studying Torah… Outstanding among these was the home of Rav Avrohom Grodzinsky which became a bastion of Torah where the sound of Torah never ceased. People studied singly, in pairs, in groups. Rav Avraham delivered mussar talks; Rav Elchonon taught maseches Nidddah up to the moment the fiends burst into the house; Rav Yechezkel Bornstein taught maseches Nedarim and Rav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky Hy’d taught Shaarei Teshuvah.”

In the hours before he was arrested with other occupants of the home, Reb Elchonon had acceded to Rav Grodzinsky’s plea to give a shiur on the topic of giving one’s life al Kiddush Hashem. Following this shiur, testified his son Rav Yitzchok Grodzinsky who witnessed the events as a 15 year old boy, his father delivered an impassioned mussar talk about being mekadesh Shem Shomayim berabim.

“His fiery words left us deeply shaken but also fortified for the horror to come,” Rav Yitzchok recalled emotionally many years later.

“The rat-a-tat of machine gunfire resounded in our ears all day…The only sounds that could be heard in the ghetto were the hysterical cries emerging from every household,” recounted Rebbetzin Wolbe.

Those granted a temporary reprieve from death were inducted into forced labor. In the meantime, Nazi plundering raids and home invasions in which people were terrorized and randomly killed kept the remaining Jews in a state of panic, never knowing when violent death would strike.

“[In the spring of 1944], we heard about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the Nazi retaliation and destruction of the entire ghetto. Soon after that we heard about the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto,” he Holocaust memoir continues. “We feared that the days of the Kovno Ghetto in which we were trapped were numbered as well.”

 

Readying Himself for Kiddush Hashem

The surviving members of the Grodzinsky family were preparing for what everyone sensed would be their last Pesach in the ghetto – and perhaps on this world.

Having been forced to leave behind all furniture and most of their possessions when they were driven from their homes, they had little Pesach cleaning to do in their small ghetto room. Rampant poverty and hunger ensured there were no crumbs to dispose of. “The matzos we had baked were perched on a chair in our room – and that was the extent of our preparations,” the author recalls.

Her recollections about that final bitter period in the ghetto resonate with wrenching memories of her father, who despite the terror, never lost his composure. He continued to strengthen and fortify others even in an atmosphere of impending doom.

“Every Friday night, the surviving bnei Torah who had studied in Slabodka would meet in our “house,” the one room allotted to our family, where Papa would encourage them with divrei Torah. These young men were broken in body and spirit. They were the sole survivors of their families and the harsh labor in German factories had totally debilitated them. Hunger was their constant lot.”

Despite their weakness, hunger and exhaustion, the bochurim gathered around their rebbe every Shabbos night to hear his mussar talks and absorb his words of encouragement and consolation. Ghetto survivors testify he gave them the strength to endure. From Rav Shmuel Yaakov Roz in his sefer, Shiras Shmuel:

“The gentle and refined rebbe, Reb Avrohom, ztvk”l, was seized and brought to one of the workshops of the ghetto. A great spiritual awakening occurred around him. The surviving yeshiva students clustered around the gaon. From his words one could sense his intense and unwavering readiness for death al Kiddush Hashem.

“On Shabbos, he delivered mussar shmuessen just as before the war. Even on the bleakest days, when his private sorrow was immense (his own sons had been seized by the fiends), his face continued to glow with joy. He would bolster their spirits, arouse them to teshuvah…”

“He was so gaunt from hunger it was nearly impossible to recognize him. When finally food was obtained, he ate his portion slowly, giving no sign of how famished he was,” recalled his son, Rav Yitzchok, in his introduction to his father’s sefer Toras Avrohom. The sefer was published after the war from manuscripts Rav Avrohom had shipped to Eretz Yisroel years earlier.

Rav Grodzinsky’s legendary calmness of demeanor broke down when, following each “selektzia,” people were sent to the right – to life—or to the left, which everyone knew spelled doom. “Papa rejoiced over every soul that was saved but wept afresh for every one that was torn from us,” Rebbetzin Wolbe recalled. The following day, all those shunted to the left were marched to the Ninth Fort and mowed down by gunfire.

 

Edge of a Volcano

The ghetto’s remaining inhabitants felt they were sitting on an edge of a volcano. Everyone began to feverishly prepare hiding places for themselves and their loved ones. A few days before Pesach, the “volcano” exploded. German and Lithuanian soldiers suddenly surrounded the ghetto. Only the elderly and mothers of small children were at home, everyone else having been herded away to forced labor. What happened next beggars the imagination.

The barbarians overran the ghetto, going from house to house, banging and smashing down doors, seizing old people and children, the author relates. They tore shrieking children from their mother’s arms and loaded them into trucks, carrying out these horrifying atrocities in one part of the ghetto after another. Many mothers hurled themselves into the trucks to be with their children in their final hours.

The Germans had previously arrested all the Jewish ghetto police and herded them into the Ninth Fort where they were tortured to force them to disclose hiding places where ghetto children could be found. Although an isolated few broke under torture, “most did not,” testified Rebbetzin Wolbe. “Such was the bravery of our Jewish policemen in the ghetto… They were all murdered in the Ninth Fort.

 

The Last Seder

The seizure of the children utterly crushed the ghetto’s inhabitants. In this mournful state, young Rivka and her surviving siblings, together with her father and a few yeshiva students, sat down to their seder a week later.

“In sadness and pain, we began emotionally,” the author recalls. “Papa sat at the helm of the table and tried to conduct the seder as he had in the past. “Hoh lachmah anya,” resounded in the pitiful room. Suddenly a tall husky German burst through the door. He had a gun and was obviously an officer. Papa turned pale. Fear paralyzed us all.”

The German eyed the table. “Aha, matzah!” he exclaimed. He strode contemptuously around the room, demanding the family’s work cards to verify they had gone to forced labor that day. He yanked aside the bedclothes to see if any children had escaped the Children’s Aktzia and were being hidden under the beds. He seemed to be searching for a pretext to drag them all off, or kill them on the spot.

Young Rivka trembled in terror, knowing only a miracle could save them. And indeed the Pesach miracle occurred. The German officer abruptly left the house without a word. Waves of relief washed over all those around the table. They resumed the seder, the author writes, “feeling that we had for that moment at least, emerged mei’afeilah le’or gadol, from deepest darkness to a great light.”

 Eventually, as the Germans began to liquidate the ghetto, the family went into hiding. Rav Grodzinsky’s students had constructed a large hideout where they and scores of other Jews took refuge. The Germans relied on tips from informers to discover many of the bunkers where Jews were hiding. They would toss grenades into the bunkers to flush out the occupants and abuse whoever they caught. Those they couldn’t find, they destroyed by burning down the ghetto, house by house.

The Grodzinskys and other occupants of the bunker were forced out of their hideout this way. Brutally assaulted, they were then separated into groups and shipped to death camps. Rav Avrohom, who could not walk after being beaten, was taken on a stretcher to the hospital. It was known in the ghetto that the Germans intended to torch the hospital, with all of the patients inside. According to survivors, the rav told the last of his students to visit him that he lovingly accepted the Heavenly judgment but “his heart trembled over the barbarians’ desecration of the Divine image.”

The memoir continues tracing young Rivka’s harrowing ordeals in a series of concentration camps until the moment of liberation. The author recounts astounding miracles that saved her more than once at the very brink of death. “In the most trying times and terrifying situations, there was always His faith to grab onto…” she attests.

 

A Granddaughter’s Tribute

Rebbetzin Wolbe today resides in Givat Shaul, close to her children and grandchildren. Her late husband, who passed away in 2005, was the renowned baal mussar and beloved mashgiach of Yeshivas B’er Yaakov, Rav Shlomo Wolbe.

A granddaughter, Mrs. Esther (Wolbe) Kaplan, described her grandmother to this writer as “an incredible person, one of the most real people I’ve ever met. My bubby is a bridge to a world that is no more… She’s a survivor who remained rooted in the chinuch of her youth throughout all the events of her life, the terrible things she went through. Part of that chinuch is that she never questioned the foundations of her faith.”

“Everything about her, the way she talks, her deep emunah, her humility, her belief in Moshiach… ‘Moshiach is walking the streets!’ she often says – is a living legacy to that lost world.”

Mrs. Kaplan mentioned that her grandmother “grew up listening in to her father’s mussar talks behind the door, overhearing the conversation of gedolei hador and talmidei chachomim who were constantly in the house…” These were the influences that shaped her, the source of her unshakable faith during the Holocaust

At liberation, she lay half dead with typhus in a quarantined ward. “They had marked the foreheads of those who were going to die with an “X” – a sign to the medical staff not to waste treatment on us…” Rebbetzin Wolbe recalled in her memoir.

Miraculously, she survived. After being hospitalized for many months in various Swedish hospital, she came to the Lidingo school, founded for survivors by the legendary couple, Rav Binyamin Zev and Kette Yaakovson, with the help of Rav Shlomo Wolbe, then a young man in his thirties.

Hundreds of students arrived deeply traumatized by their war experiences. The love and devotion of the Jacobsens helped them to recover and to go on to marry and raise beautiful families – a remarkable saga in its own right.

“My grandmother joined the teaching staff at Lidingo before continuing on to Eretz Yisroel where she married my grandfather [Rav Shlomo Wolbe],” notes her granddaughter. This was an extraordinary transformation for one who had months before lain gravely ill, emotionally shattered and bereft. [Rebbetzin Wolbe modestly omits mention of her role as teacher in the school but it is attested to in the testimonials about Lidingo by former students, included in Faith In The Night.]

“My bubby never asked why the Holocaust happened,” her granddaughter attests. “Her faith carried her through and she never questioned. Our generation is different. Maybe that’s why she chose not to talk about what she went through.”

“For a long time after the war ended,” wrote the author in her introduction, “I spoke little about those bitter days… I bur[ied] my experiences deep within me.” She felt “the cataclysm was beyond human understanding,” that no matter how hard she tried to describe it, she could not “convey even a partial glimpse of the horrifying picture.”

“The wickedness… the depravity of what they did to us is so inconceivable, it sounds made up,” another survivor once said. “To force yourself to share this agony just to see the disbelief in the person’s eyes…?”

The author describes how the rise of Holocaust denial only a few decades after the end of the war “enraged” her… “Nothing could placate my anger. It was then that memories burst forth. Shocking scenes began to surface, sharp and distinct. I began to feel that speaking out was an obligation, even a mission.”

“I feel she did it for me, for all her descendants,” noted her granddaughter. “She knew my generation needed to know… not only what she went through but where we come from, what our grandparents and great-grandparents were made out of. These are our deepest roots, it’s who we are. And we need to know it.”