History of the Slobodka Yeshiva

World Famous Talmudic Academy, the Knesset Israel – Slobodka Yeshiva - Between the Pogroms and the Holocaust

2.4.17, 16:33
(PHOTO: The Slobodka Yeshiva building in Hebron.)
Text by Dr. Michal Rachel Suissa. This article originally appeared in the book Hebron: Rebirth from Ruins. 

The Slobodka (also spelled Slabodka) Yeshiva (Talmudic Academy) was a lighthouse for Jewish life. Hundreds of well- known rabbis, who led the Jewish Diaspora and who left their mark on Jewish thinking and lifestyle, came from the small Lithuanian town Slobodka. The Jewish Mussar Movement, which emphasizes intensive moral introspection originated in Slobodka. The school’s philosophy supported Jewish integration in local society, but with an uncompromising and high standard of individual and community behavior that would ensure the future existence of Judaism. The Mussar Movement came about as a reaction to the secularisation among the Jews, who wished to integrate into the non-Jewish society by abandoning their Jewish identity. The Holocaust demonstrated the futility of the latter endeavor.[2-7]
Rabbi Nathan Zvi Finkel (1849–1927) founded the Yeshiva in 1882 in a suburb(Slobodka) of Vilna, the capital of Jewish scholarship in Northern Europe during the modern era. Many yeshivas in Lithuania and Poland drew scholars and inspiration from Slobodka, particularly after the Russian Tzar forced the closure of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva. Rabbi Finkel’s conviction was that the Jewish people’s existence was dependent on scholars who would ensure the continuation of Judaism.
In 1881 he anonymously published the book ’The Fruit Tree." The book had articles written by himself, by Rabbi Israel Salant and other Talmudic scholars, and dealt with the importance of the Torah’s role for Israel’s existence. Rabbi Finkel understood the challenge of modern secular culture and was determined to found a movement of Torah scholarship that was logically rigorous, critically oriented, and committed to bold intellectual creativity yet wholly committed to orthodox Jewish values. The book had a great influence on its readers, but the highlight in Rabbi Finkel’s life work was undoubtedly the Yeshiva ’Knesset Israel’ in Slobodka, a Yeshiva that very quickly became one of the World’s most famous Jewish theological schools. [8]
Only the very best students were admitted to the Yeshiva, which produced many illustrious and brilliant alumni. The entrance examination was very demanding and many prepared themselves for years.
In this school it was forbidden to learn by rote. It was rather mathematical analyses, a deep understanding, critical thinking and an uncompromising lifestyle with a high moral and human compassion that marked the school’s agenda. The Moral Aim at Slobodka Ethics, an important subject in the school’s curriculum, was lectured on and discussed every afternoon. The aim was that a person should constantly engage in self-criticism and repentance, gradually becoming a better person until he would deserve to be called a creature made in G-d’s image. This implied that the individual bore great responsibility for his actions.[9,10]
“The Grandfather”
One of Judaism’s most important values, charity (“Veahavta lereacha kamocha”, love one’s fellow as oneself) woven together with G-d’s love, had an important place in the school’s philosophy. Rabbi Finkel, Rabbi Avrahom Grodzensky and the other teachers at the school were living and shining examples of this message. Rabbi Finkel’s motto was humility and equal regard for every human being. The students called him ‘Saba’ - ‘Grandfather’, and did not always know what an important role he played in the World’s most exclusive theological school. For the students, he was first of all the Grandfather who took care of the more practical side of things, and who personally took care of scholarships, food, clothes, medicine and whatever the students were in need of. Humble as he was, he never signed letters nor did he write articles or books in which he addressed himself as the founder or leader. He did not even sign his name. In his peaceful way, he influenced the Jewish spiritual leaders for many generations to come.
(PHOTO: Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel.)
Deportation to Kremenchug
During the First World War in 1914, the Tzar forbade the Jews to live in Slobodka and Kovno because of the many military sites there. The Yeshiva was first forced to move to the city Minsk and thereafter to Kremenchug. Both the Grandfather and the ‘Rosh Yeshiva’, the Yeshiva’s dean, Moshe Mordechai Epstein, risked their lives by continuing the school and helping their students at the place of deportation. 
Pogroms and hunger were the lot of the Jews of that time, but the Jews of Kremenchug heroically helped the students. This period bears witness of the strong bonds that existed among Jews, even those who had not known each other previously. Despite the difficult times, the Yeshiva managed to maintain its normal curriculum, and Grandfather declared that era as a golden period, both morally and for the study of the Torah. 
In 1916, with Vilna (and Slobodka) under German military rule, the German appointed administrator of the town, a local by the name of Haza, became aware that the Yeshiva building stood vacant and abandoned. He arranged for the building to be used once again as a Yeshiva, and arranged travel documents for former students of Slobodka who lived in the German-occupied zone to return to it. The whole town was decorated for a feast on the day the school was reopened. Even the Berliner Tagesblatt wrote about the event. The “original” Slobodka yeshiva was reunited with the new yeshiva upon the former’s return from its Kremenchug exile in Kremenchug in 1921.
The Yeshiva’s Heyday
The Yeshiva’s golden period was right after the war. Students from all corners of the world sought the school, and in 1922 it became necessary to expand the school to accept younger students also. “The Grandfather” resumed his place and took care of the scholarships for the needy students. Rabbi Avrahom Grodzensky was appointed spiritual leader of the Yeshiva in 1913 (5673). He was a great genius, a sensitive human with a heart filled with love for all of G-d’s creation. He spent much time teaching about ethics and he influenced the way this subject was taught. Rabbi Grodzensky was one of Israel’s great pedagogues with a deep psychological perspective. His gentle methods of correcting students’ behavior without causing them stress, demoralization or offense, endeared him to all. To his students he was a living example of how a person can at all times be just, compassionate and moral. It was said about him that he never pursuaded his students to be better persons by pointing to their negative sides. He had a positive view of everything and was a living example of the Jews love for G-d and the genuine Jewish love for all G-d’s creation. When “The Grandfather” went to Israel, Rabbi Grodzensky remained the chief spiritual leader of the Yeshiva at Slobodka.
Establishment of the Slobodka Yeshiva in Hebron
1924 was a historical turning point for the Yeshiva. At that time most of the best students relocated to Hebron and established a branch of the Yeshiva there. “The Grandfather” and Rabbi Moshe Mordecai Epstein headed the Yeshiva in Hebron.
The issuance of the Balfour Declaration, the establishment of the British Mandate and the commencement of mass Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel strengthened Rabbi Epstein’s conviction that the people of Israel could not be spiritually edified without their restoration to the Land of Israel. Also in 1924 the Lithuanian government imposed compulsory military service on the Lithuanian yeshiva students, unless they studied at a public school. Shortly afterwards there were 160 students in Hebron.

(PHOTO: Rabbi Esptein, left, with Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak Kook, right, with diplomats in New York, 1924.)
The yeshiva changed Hebron. A hotel, a bakery and several canteens were opened and the Jewish religious community grew. Students from the whole world came to the yeshiva, their families came to visit, and some stayed. Every morning the Jews in Hebron could meet the World’s best students on their way to the study hall, geniuses who radiated G-d’s light everywhere. This encouraged the Jews from other parts of Israel to return to the ’City of the Forefathers’. They saw possibilities of a brighter future here, not least for the Jews who had fled the European pogroms and were looking for a peaceful place to live.
But it was not be. After five years came the Arab pogrom. It soaked the soil of Hebron in Jewish blood, and Hebron became ’Judenrein’ for the first time in its history. In 1928 Rabbi Epstein brought his family to Hebron. On 24 August 1929, the Arab pogrom murdered at least 67 Jews, 24 of them students, along with their teachers.
The Slobodka Yeshiva’s Last Period in Lithuania
After a large part of the Yeshiva had moved to Hebron, the Yeshiva at Slobodka continued under the leadership of Rabbi Yitzchok Eizek Sher. For him it was now even more important to ensure that the students received their scholarships, and he was preoccupied with reducing poverty and hunger amongst his students. For the rabbi every student was a prince.
The students were served three meals daily and on Shabbats one could hear the student’s song at the tables far out in the streets of Slobodka. In 1928 there were 267 students in the school and in 1932 it added another building. The foundation stone of the new building was laid by the American consul in Lithuania, Mr. Morris Staport. The flag of the United States was hoisted, as many of the students were Americans.
(PHOTO: Class portrait of the Slabodka Yeshiva in Hebron.)
The Holocaust
The yeshiva operated normally until June 22, 1941. On the 23rd the Germans were already approaching Kovno. That day, for the first time, the voice of the Torah was stilled in Slobodka Yeshiva. Friday June 27, 1941 was a gruesome day with a pogrom against the Jews. On that day, Rabbi Shraga Faivel Horowitz, one of the Yeshiva leaders, together with a Yeshiva student from Germany, named Wolf, were seized by 3 Lithuanian Nazis and shot in front of the rabbi’s wife and child. Many students were taken to the seventh fort (one of a series of old forts from the Tzar’s day surrounding the city) and shot. Haiim Lopet, Heshil Plahan, the son of the rabbi in Mastrik, Rabbi Leib Shimshowitz, Leib Erlich, Aharon Reichman, Israel Segal from Foslaba, Haiim Shitskos, Arieh, Yablanowitz, Abraham Yitzhak Zaks and many others were shot there. These Jews were taken from their homes and from the streets by the Lithuanian Nazis, who tortured and then murdered them. In the first week 108 students and rabbis were murdered. Amongst them were also Rabbi Lipa Zilber, Rabbi Haim Gilmann, Rabbi Haim Bessarabin and many others.
On 18 August 1941, ten days after the Jews had been interned in the ghetto in the city of Kovno and 10,000 Jews were murdered, the Gestapo came into the ghetto and demanded 500 persons for ’administrative work’. Among those selected by the Judenrat were 40 Yeshiva students: Rabbi Shlomo Ralaba, Yehosua Graz, Baruch Straus and others. 543 Jews were taken to the fourth fort and shot there.
On 26 September 1941, on the Sabbath evening, the Lithuanian murderers surrounded the ghetto. They murdered approximately 1,000 Jews. Amongst them were 64 Yeshiva students and their families: Rabbi Isar Shur and his wife, Rabbi Zvi Shneider and his wife, Rabbi Moshe Bendam and his entire family, the Rabbi of the city Mush, Rabbi Moshe Gdzices, Nahom Ulsvang and their families, including infants. All were butchered.
On 28 October 1941, the ghetto leadership was ordered to gather all Jews, regardless of age or condition, at Democracy Square. Royka, the brutal Gestapo agent, started to separate the Jews into groups, some to the right and some to the left. He gathered together approximately 10,000 Jews, among them many students and Chief Rabbi Yehezkel Bernstein of the Yeshiva ’Israel’s Light’ with his family,; the spiritual leader of Yeshiva Bernowitz, Rabbi Israel Yaakov Lubatshensky; Rabbi Naftali Wasserman and his sons; Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman; Rabbi Zalmann Stein and his family; the secretary of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Shlomo and many others. All were murdered that day. 
The Ninth Fort: approx. 50,000 persons were murdered here- most of them Jews (Photo: Shai Lee)
The Jewish Street (Picture: Shai Lee)

Yekutiel Fridmann 
Kopel Pentiansky, one of the Slobodka students, managed to escape to his village, Filbishuk, just before the Germans captured Kovno. He and his brother Yitzhak hid themselves in a non-Jewish neighbor’s place. For two months Yekutiel Fridmann risked his life by bringing food to them. When the murderers found them, they were killed and their bodies thrown into the river. They floated in the water and the dogs ate their corpses. Yekutiel survived and after the war ended he came back and gave them a Jewish burial.
The Plan of the Nazis
The plan of the Nazis was not just to kill the Jews but also to exterminate them spiritually. Their aim was not just the Jews but also Judaism. Therefore the Nazis were thorough when it came to murdering the rabbis and the Yeshiva students.
One of the first declared goals of the Nazis was to convert the Jew from a creature who walked on two legs to one who crawled on four. They murdered both the Jewish spiritual leaders and children. Rabbi Efroim Oshry testfies in his writing about an incident at the airport of the city of Kovno, where he saw both old and young performing forced labor. A German called a group of Jewish children who were hungry and exhausted. He slowly cut a potato in pieces and threw them around. His aim was to prove that Jews crawl on all fours.[2]
“In the evening I gathered the children and explained to them about the Nazi’s purpose: Dear children of Israel, I know that you are very hungry, but you must not allow these animals to take away from us the image of G-d that we have in us. Even when we are starving, we should show them that we are not animals like them. I remember that a young boy, his skin quite yellow due to jaundice and weakened by hunger, answered me: “Don’t you think that we know that ourselves? What we should do when we are hungry? It is written in the Gemara, in tractate 'Baba Batra,' that hunger is worse than the sword!”
Rabbi Avrahom Grodzensky: A Model for Jewish Heroism 
Even with the sword on their necks, the Jews did not stop studying the Torah. Chief Rabbi Avrahom Grodzensky in Slobodka miraculously escaped several attempts on his life even though he was physically handicapped and one of his legs gave him intense pain. His house in the ghetto became a center for Torah studies and it seemed as if G-d wanted to preserve him to ensure the study of G-d’s Word to the last moment. In his house at Fanaros Street 15 lived many rabbis, Yeshiva leaders and students under inhuman conditions. But the teaching went on as usual. Rabbi Grodzensky spoke on ethics and Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman taught the Tractate of Nida (impurity) from the Gemara Nonetheless he too, with his students, was carried away to the Ninth Fort and murdered. Rabbi Yehezkal Bernstein taught from the tractate Nedarim (Vows).
Rabbi Israel Yaakov Lubtshansmaky, sonin-law of Rabbi Yosel of Mnoboradok, taught from Rabeno Yona’s book ‘Shaare Teshuva’ (Gates of Repentance), a wholly appropriate work for the times.
Those Yeshiva students who were still alive in the ghetto also used to gather on Sabbath evenings at Rabbi Grodzensky’s place. His home was near the Yeshiva building. There he continued with his holy work in disregard of the Gestapo.
During that period the rabbi particularly talked much about the importance of sanctifying G-d’s name, the G-d whom the Jews loved so much and the religion so filled with love that words cannot describe it. He encouraged the students and helped them keep up their courage and preserve the highest Jewish morals in confronting their murderers. He talked about the righteous Rabbi Akiva and the many Jews who were martyred, but who did not renounce their G-d or their faith. “When one really believes in G-d there is no torture that can steal one’s faith”, he said.
For three years Rabbi Grodzensky stood together with those who were still alive, whilst the Nazi beasts daily attacked and murdered innocent and holy Jewish souls. On Shabbat July 8, 1944, when the Kovno ghetto was liquidated, they managed to hide the rabbi but unfortunately he was quickly discovered. He tried to flee but broke his bad leg in the attempt and was admitted to the camp’s hospital.
Many Jews cried out in indescribable pains in the hospital but they received no treatment. The Nazis planned to set the whole building on fire.
Simon Segal who visited the rabbi in the hospital, related that Rabbi Grodzensky told him: “You must help that little girl in the adjacent bed! What possible wrong could that little creature have done?”
A Yeshiva student, who kept watch over Rabbi Grodzensky just before he was burnt to death, delivered the rabbi’s last words: “I do not think about my personal pain and all the suffering I have gone through. It is the screams from my small sisters and brothers whose lives the fire will extinguish that torment me.”
On Thursday 13 July 1944 the Nazis set fire to the hospital and Rabbi Grodzensky was killed along with all the other ill and defenseless Jews held there.
The Slobodka Yeshiva was destroyed; its innocent students and their rabbis were butchered by both the Nazis and the Arabs. Both shared the crime of taking the lives of holy and defenseless Jews, but they could not extinguish their spirit and that of the Torah.
The Jewish heritage, which is founded upon love and compassion, will safeguard for eternity the Jews, as has been done for the nearly 4,000 years. The great and powerful enemies of the Jews like Babylonia, the Philistines, Persia, Greece, Rome, Nazi Germany and many others, are only to be found in the history books. The Jews on the other hand, the World’s eternal, defenseless scapegoats, have outlived them all.
Despite the destruction, the voice of Slobodka was not stilled. The refugees from Slobodka Yeshiva in Hebron reestablished their yeshiva in one of Jerusalem’s southern neighborhoods, nearest to Hebron. Slobodka, now known as “Hebron Yeshiva,” still teaches Mussar and produces Torah scholars in contemporary Israel.
(PHOTO: Hebron Yeshiva - Geula, Jerusalem. Credit: Wiki Commons.)
A dignified and appropriate step towards laying to rest the memory of the barbaric European and Arab pogroms culminating in the Holocaust which devastated Slobodka would be to return to the Jews the Slobodka Yeshiva building, which is still occupied by Arabs, to the yeshivas in Hebron and Kiryat Arba, which see themselves as a continuation of Slobodka with their top quality students.
Only when the Patriarchs in the Cave of Machpela will be awakened daily by the voice of the Torah, including the geniuses of the Slobodka Yeshiva, in the middle of the Jews’ eternal and holy city Hebron, only then will it be possible to conclude this painful chapter and finalize the restoration of Yeshivat Knesset Yisrael – Slobokda.
[2] This article is based on the Holocaust survivor Rabbi Efroim Oshry’s important documentation work: www.daat.ac.il/daat/chinuch/mosdot/slovodka-2.htm
[3] Rabbi Efroim Oshry, ‘The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry’, New York: Press, 1995, ISBN: 188058218X.
[4] Masha Greenbaum, ‘The Jews of Lithuania: A History of a Remarkable Community 1316 - 1945’, Publisher: Jerusalem, Gefen, 1995, ISBN: 9652291323.
[5] Hillel Goldberg, ‘Between Berlin and Slobodka: Jewish Transition Figures from Eastern Europe’ Ktav Pub. House, 1989, ISBN: 0881251429.
[6] ‘Encyclopedia Judaica’, 1972, Keter Publishing House Jerusalem Ltd., Jerusalem, Israel.
[7] Michael Maik, ‘Deliverance: The Diary of Michael Maik, a True Story’, Kedumim, Israel, Avigdor and Laia Ben-Dov edts., ISBN: 965- 90701-0-1/ 9659070101 (Hebrew/English).
[8] The Yeshiva was named after its first leader and pedagogue, Rabbi Israel Salant.
[9] Rabbi Dov Katz, ‘The Moral Movement’, vol. 2, Tel Aviv, 1950 (Hebrew).
[10] A. Fridmann, ‘The Moral Movement’s History’, Jerusalem, 1926 (Hebrew).