Can anything ennobling and enduring be taken from all the horror that has happened? From the hurt that has been endured? Can something of worth be lifted from the flames?
Shavel had been the third most populous city in Lithuania, located near a major road and railway juncture. It had been famous for being home to the largest leather factor in the Russian Empire, owned by Chaim Freinkl. Shavel, home to more than 14,000 Jews prior to the liquidation of its ghetto. The community was decimated in the Shoah. Only 500 survived. Only a handful remains there today.
In today’s Shavel there is a Kehilla House where Jewish communal activity takes place. There we met a man, Boris Steinas, whose Star of David-decorated business card states that he is “Chairman” of “Jewish Community of Siauliai District” in “Lietuva / Lithuania.”
He told of returning after the war, along with 700 others. By 1991, when Lithuania gained its independence from the Soviet Union, there were 400 Jews. Today, they are a “kehilla of 200 Jews – a kleine kehila mit groise tzores, a small community with big problems.”
There are twenty children under the age of eighteen, but only three are “really Jewish” born to two Jewish parents. The rest, he noted ruefully, are born of intermarriages.
The community is dominated by the elderly, the sickly, the invalid. But, he said, “we try that the community should not be destroyed. It’s not easy; we have no means of support, we don’t have too much help. We celebrate all the yomim tovim…”
In the end, his message was simple and powerful. “We invest many koiches [much of our energy] to perpetuate the sacred areas vie m’hot geharget and geshosen yidden – where Jews were shot and murdered without any trace of memory or remembrance. I consider this our sacred duty.”
M’zol nisht fargessen – so it not be forgotten….
It is difficult to see in these dwindling numbers any sparks of a once-thriving, glorious Jewish community. Shavel’s gifts to the Jewish world remain in its tradition of Torah learning and in the great teachers it gave to us. Might that too be coming to an end?
These questions weighed on me as I came toward the end of our time in Lithuania. And then, as if to emphasize the seriousness and urgency of the concern, Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, rabban shel Yisrael, passed away on the final day of my visit. He died on July 18 in Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center at the age of 102. With his passing, we may have seen the last of the undisputed leaders of the non-chassidic “Lithuanian” haredi community.
Rav Elyashiv was born in 1910 in Siauliai (Shavel in Yiddish), Lithuania, the only child of Rav Avraham Orener and Chaya Musha, daughter of the mekubal HaRav Shlomo Elyashiv, the Leshem. The family immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1922.
Rav Elyashiv married his wife of 65 years, Sheina Chaya, in 1929, on the recommendation of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine. The couple had 12 children.
He served for many years as a rabbinical judge in the Chief Rabbinate and on the Supreme Rabbinical Court, during which time his stature as one of the most knowledgeable authorities in halacha grew rapidly.
Rav Elyashiv was recognized for his outstanding scholarship in Talmudic law; his published works are largely compilations of his countless rulings on Jewish law and responsa to questions posed to him over his many years as the leading halachic authority.
And now, though the remnants of the Lithuanian haredi community have grown in Israel, where to?
As the Torah greats who were born into the magnificent Jewish communities of Europe pass into eternity, what of those of us who remain? How do we reckon the loss of these individuals and the worlds that passed away before them?
Shavel, the glorious community that gave birth to the gadol hador and that once flourished within the larger Lithuanian Jewish world, is no longer a physical reality. But as the memory of Eretz Yisrael beckoned us for centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple and we declared, to ourselves and each other, “Next year in Jerusalem,” so let us determine to keep the memory of Shavel and the many other destroyed communities alive in our hearts.