The Yalkut Shimoni presents us with a beautiful analogy. A gentleman is traveling on a long journey with no visible wares. His fellow travelers inquire, “Where is your merchandise?” He responds, “One day soon, you’ll see.” Sure enough, within days, pirates attack their ship and all items are stolen. But our gentleman reaches land intact, his prized possessions are still his. All others reach shore with no worldly goods. Our gentleman, however, makes his way directly to the local Bais Medrash and begins to teach Torah to his brethren.
This parable is an appropriate intro to the current exhibit in Amud Aish Memorial Museum, entitled “Precious Gift: Rescue and Shanghai.”
As the Mirrer scholars traveled to safety in Shanghai, they carried with them their immense Torah scholarship and values. These survivors became the nucleus of today’s major yeshivos and ensured the continuation of Torah Jewry, post Holocaust. There were other yeshivos in Shanghai, including Chabad and Chachmei Lublin. However, the Mir was unique; it was the only yeshiva that was transplanted, miraculously, in its entirety.
I would like to focus on one particular Mirrer talmid, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu (Mottel) Rabinowitz, z’l. Reb Mottel was born in Isabelin, a small town in Poland where his father was the rav. Reb Mottle learned in Baranovitch and then in the Mir, where he received semicha from Reb Leizer Yudel Finkel. Though his father moved to America, Reb Mottel and his younger brother Yitzchok (Itchi) remained behind in the yeshiva.
As the war engulfed Europe, Reb Mottel escaped with the Mir Yeshiva, traveling through Siberia, Japan, eventually reaching Shanghai. Reb Mottel’s father in America was able to procure visas for his two sons. Another Mirrer talmid, Shmuel Soroka, who had an uncle living in the US, also received his visa and happily joined the Rabinowitz brothers. Their departure from Shanghai was a major cause for celebration among the bachurim as they all eagerly anticipated leaving Shanghai and rebuilding their lives on friendlier, more suitable shores.
The three of them boarded a boat heading towards the US. However, on December 7, 1941, while the boat was docked in Manila in the Philippines, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the US bases in the Philippines. The Japanese then interned all whom they considered enemy civilians, including Reb Mottel and his brother, and Reb Shmuel Soroka, along with thousands of American citizens living in the Philippines.
A long 3½ years ensued until they were released and able to travel to the US. In the interim, Reb Mottel continued with his intense learning. He built himself a primitive hut to use as a Bais Medrash. Virtually all the internees were non-Jewish, and the few Jews were non-observant; Reb Mottel, his brother, and their friend Shmuel Soroka were greatly challenged in their goal of keeping mitzvos and maintaining their religious observance. They grew their own vegetables. They collected stray grains of rice, thus keeping themselves from starvation. The primitive conditions of the internment camp, combined with the tropical climate and lack of nutrition certainly affected the inmates. Sadly, many succumbed to starvation and tropical diseases. The Japanese were brutal to the inmates, doing their utmost to wear them down, physically and emotionally.
Although during wartime there was minimal communication with his family, the Red Cross did arrange for an occasional exchange of postcards. Reb Mottel sent a cryptic post to his Rosh Yeshiva, mentioning that he had Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, hoping it would be deciphered properly to indicate that there was a severe shortage of kosher food.
The food situation became even more dire. The few Jewish prisoners inquired from Reb Mottel as to whether it was possible, giving the difficult situation, to eat the non-kosher rations. Reb Mottel responded in the affirmative. But he would not partake of those rations. Why not? He answered, “I have no one to ask.” He held himself to a higher standard and demanded a great deal of himself.
Throughout the duration of his internment, Reb Mottel was determined to use all he had learned in yeshiva to fortify himself and keep his faith intact. He considered himself a Mirrer talmid until his very last day, carrying his semicha from Harav Leizer Yudel in his wallet his entire life. The words of the Mesilas Yesharim, which he knew by heart, echoed constantly. His lifelong mission was to follow the directive to clarify “Mah chovaso b’olamo – what is a person’s duty in his world?”
Reb Mottel was able to produce a Jewish calendar. Due to the trying circumstances of their imprisonment, the Rabinowitz brothers and their friend Soroka were unable to observe the holidays properly, but this calendar assured that they would remember and perform whatever mitzvos they possibly could. Although they were incapable of resisting the Japanese physically, this calendar enabled them to demonstrate amazing spiritual resistance.
This calendar as well as other documents and artifacts that had belonged to Reb Mottel are currently displayed in the Amud Aish Memorial Museum. They attest to his passion and love for yahadus and Torah; these items enabled Reb Mottel, Reb Itche and Reb Shlomo, to keep their spirits up, despite the exceedingly difficult, wretched situation they were in.
Years later, on a visit to his revered, beloved Mashgiach, HaRav Chatzkel Levenstein zt”l, he shared with him his war experiences. Reb Chatzkel commented, “Ich bin dir mikaneh. Du bist shoin gepruft – I envy you; you have already been tested.”
During his years in the Philippines, Rabbi Rabinowitz had learned English and had informally completed high school. When he finally made it to the shores of America, Rabbi Shmuel Belkin, a distant relative, and head of Yeshiva University, arranged for him to learn with American post high school students who had never met with a European ben Torah. Rabbi Belkin further encouraged him to continue his studies in order to qualify as a principal in a yeshiva high school.
Throughout his life, as an ace mechanech, in New York and later in Montreal, Rabbi Rabinowitz would refer to the teachings of his beloved mentors. He would compare the impact of Reb Yeruchem’s influence to the strong scent of a luscious fruit orchard. Although the fruit is high above, one need not climb to the heights to enjoy the scent. Similarly, simply by being in the yeshiva, in the very presence of Reb Yeruchem, one already reaped benefits in the spiritual realm.
Rabbi Rabinowitz was well aware that this was an orphaned generation, having just experienced the churban of European Jewry. His ultimate goal was to ensure that every young man would benefit from our mesorah in order to ensure the continuity of Am Yisrael, the revival of Torah learning. He joined with HaRav Pinchas Hirschprung and HaRav Leib Baron in leading Yeshiva Mercaz Hatorah in Montreal. Originally, he held the position together with HaRav Zelig Epstein and HaRav Moshe Cohen. During his 30 years in the yeshiva, Rabbi Rabinowitz introduced his students to the ways of thinking, behaving and impacting others that the Mashgiach, Reb Yerucham, had exemplified.
Rabbi Rabinowitz was passionate about his teaching. He was on a most serious mission, to transmit the mesorah, the learning, that was so precious to him, his “precious gift.” Baruch Hashem, he accomplished his mission, as his many students have testified. May his memory be a blessing.
Notes: Many of the details for the article above were taken from an article that appeared in Hamodia, March 13, 2013, written by M. Abir.
Feldheim has just published A Mirrer in Manila; A Mir Yeshiva Student’s Amazing Story of Escape and Survival, written by Dr Mordachai Buchie Soroka. It is the story of his father, Reb Shlomo Soroka.