By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Although the name of Rav Aharon Kotler, zt’l, is well known in Torah circles, very little biographical information of his earlier life in Europe is available. This is especially true for the English-reading public. In honor of the fiftieth yahrzeit of Rav Kotler, and using information culled from newly available documents, the Five Towns Jewish Times is presenting new material in this three-part mini-biography. Part 2 appeared in last week’s issue.
World War I
At the dawn of the First World War in 1913, most of the students of Slutsk wished to avoid the Russian draft and left the yeshiva. The financial situation also caused wide panic. Rav Isser Zalman was to later say, “The World War destroyed the yeshiva and also destroyed me.”
As town after town was being taken over by the Bolsheviks, students from these towns desperately wished to return and visit their parents to assist them. The yeshiva offered them any assistance it could render.
The Bolsheviks confiscated the beautiful and historic shuls and buildings of Slutsk. They attempted to deport the leaders of the community to Siberia. Yet the yeshiva tried to remain in the city and outlast the Communists. One police chief of the city who was particularly cruel was the recipient of a cherem of a number of the Slutsk Torah leaders (among them Rav Shach). He was bucked off his horse and trampled to death.
Notwithstanding the vicissitudes of the war and the challenges that the Bolsheviks placed in front of them, Rav Aharon’s shiurim were masterpieces of depth and analysis. He became his father-in-law’s right arm in leading the yeshiva. After the Russian Revolution broke out, Rav Aharon saw that Slutsk would not be free of Bolshevik hands and looked for alternatives; indeed the new Soviet regime banned Torah study and began to persecute those teaching Torah. Rav Aharon and Rav Isser Zalman were both arrested a number of times, beaten, and threatened with death. These threats were no laughing matter–those years saw the onset of the murder of tens of millions of Russians by the Bolsheviks, and first and foremost on the enemies list were the Torah scholars and teachers who refused to bend to the prohibition on the practice and teaching of Judaism.
Among some of their persecutors were Jews who had been Orthodox and had left Torah for the new alternatives that were then raging throughout Europe. Rav Aharon personally knew some of these persecutors; they had met him in Minsk and other cities through the years and knew well who he was. Due to Rav Isser Zalman’s prominence as the rav of the city, it was difficult for him to escape the Soviets, and he therefore made the decision that Rav Aharon should leave first. Rav Isser Zalman would follow later on, each of them making a perilous escape across the border.
Rav Isser Zalman and Rav Aharon moved the yeshiva to Kletsk, 15 miles west of Slutsk, in the newly independent Poland.
The situation in Slutsk deteriorated rapidly and those who remained in Slutsk had to leave. Rav Aharon strongly pushed his father-in-law to make the move as soon as feasible. Rav Isser Zalman finally arrived in Kletsk right after Purim in 5683 (1923). Rav Isser Zalman later went to establish Eitz Chaim in Jerusalem, while Rav Aharon stayed on in Kletsk.
Very shortly, the Slutsk Yeshiva was transferred to Kletsk and it soon became a fortress of Torah for the Polish Jewish community. Rav Isser Zalman initially delivered shiurim in the yeshiva and in his home. At home he taught Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat.
In the winter of 1924, Rav Isser Zalman emigrated to Eretz Yisrael and Rav Aharon was left to direct Kletsk by himself. In a very short time, under the direction of Rav Aharon, Kletsk developed a reputation as one of the leading yeshivos in Europe, eclipsing other yeshivos that were much older and more established. Rav Aharon’s reputation grew by leaps and bounds as well. He joined in gatherings among the elder roshei yeshiva of Europe such as Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, Rav Shimon Shkop, and Rav Naftoli Trop. They treated him like an equal, notwithstanding that he was a generation younger than them.
Rav Aharon’s love for his students was such that he was concerned for both their spiritual development as well as their physical needs. He made sure that each student had the necessities. A student once needed a new pair of shoes. Immediately Rav Aharon stepped outside and returned with a pair for the student. Only later did someone discover that the pair was purchased for Rav Aharon in order to make the cold fundraising trips that were necessary for the yeshiva. Rav Aharon refused to keep specific hours for the students to speak to him in learning, as the other members of the hanhalah had advised. “How could I be unavailable to students who wish to discuss Torah?” he would ask.
Rav Aharon’s love and chessed for K’lal Yisrael was not just for b’nei Torah. There is a vivid and moving memoir of a young woman, Sara Gelfand, who escaped the ravages of the war and was assisted at the time by the Kletsker Rabbi, Rav Aharon Kotler. There were many others too.
The new building in Kletsk was dedicated in 1927. The builders of the large edifice donated the entire Mizrach vant out of their own pocket. A photograph of the large group was taken. It was a moment of pride for the entire town as well as the entire yeshiva.
First Trip To America
Rav Aharon came to the United States in 1936 to raise funds for the yeshiva. He stayed for eleven months because the financial situation was so bleak. While in America, however, he did not rest. In the short months that he was in America, he attempted to transplant the love and depth of study that the European yeshivos were known for. Under Rav Aharon’s influence, Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz established the yeshiva known as Beis Medrash Elyon in Monsey. Even while on a fundraising trip, Rav Aharon planted the seeds that would later allow Torah to thrive on the shores of America. After the eleven months, Rav Aharon returned to Europe.
On account of the interaction with Rav Aharon while he was in America, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz sent one of his prized talmidim, Rav Gedaliah Schorr, to study under Rav Aharon in Kletsk. A picture exists of the Kletsk Yeshiva’s hanhalah and 214 talmidim from 1938. Rabbi Shimon Goder was the executive director. The mashgiach was Rav Yoseph Aryeh Nendig. Rav Yechezkel Levenstein was also a mashgiach of the yeshiva at a certain point. Another member of the hanhalah was Rav Dovid Dov HaLevi Kreiser, who took charge of the yeshiva ketanah. Rav Kreiser was the son-in-law of Rav Dovid Povarsky, the rosh yeshiva of Ponevezh. Rav Shach too used to deliver chaburos in the yeshiva, and his picture appears prominently in the yeshiva photograph under the mashgiach, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein. Tragically, most of the students of Kletsk were murdered by the Nazis.
Third Knessiah In Marienbad
In 1937 the third Knessiah of Agudath Israel was held in Marienbad. Rav Aharon was only 45 years old, but the other roshei yeshiva and gedolim of Europe accorded him remarkable respect.
One of the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact was that after the Nazis would invade Poland, the Soviets would immediately invade Eastern Poland. The Soviets invaded Kletsk as well, and to their shock they found a fully functioning yeshiva undeterred by what was happening around them.
After consultation with Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, Rav Aharon decided to move the yeshiva to Vilna immediately after Sukkos. Vilna was to be recognized as part of a free and independent Lithuania and thus gave the Jews there some temporary breathing room. Rav Aharon sent a telegram and urged them not to delay a moment and that they may even travel on the Shabbos.
In 1941, many students of the Kletsk Yeshiva escaped to small towns in the environs of Vilna. Rav Aharon wrote to Rav Meir Karelitz, the brother of the Chazon Ish, of his desire to temporarily establish the yeshiva in Yanova, outside of Kovno. He mentioned that he had already obtained a license to that effect. He further wrote in a postscript that he and his family had received a certificate to go to Eretz Yisrael, but he refused to use it until he was able to ensure the safety of his students.
Eventually, he did succeed in transferring the students to Yanova. In the meantime, he remained in Vilna to assist in the efforts of transporting all of the European yeshivas to safer territories. Nonetheless, he traveled twice each week to deliver his shiurim to the b’nei ha’yeshiva. He would also bring with him Rav Elazar Shach during these visits to lift up the atmosphere of the yeshiva.
Yanova, however, was not entirely safe. To try to minimize the dangers, the yeshiva split up into various other cities: Saluk, Doshad, and Duksht. Rav Aharon stayed in Saluk, but would visit the other locales as well.
In the meantime, efforts in the United States to save the yeshivos were floundering slightly. New energy was need, and it was decided that Rav Aharon himself would go to the United States to help in the rescue efforts.
The necessary paperwork was obtained. In January 1941, Rav Aharon began his trip to America by way of Japan. On Friday, April 11, 1941, on erev Pesach, Rav Aharon arrived in San Francisco by boat. On Monday, April 14, the first day of chol ha’moed, Rav Aharon took a train east and arrived at Penn Station one week later, on April 21, 1941. v
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