Reading through correspondence of great Jewish leaders of old never fails to inspire, though for me, the most exciting letters are the ones that are personal in nature and that deal with challenges of the communities they led. One such letter I sold this week, written by R. Elchanan Wasserman, combined both of these elements, subtly discussing the attempts to have his son avoid the Soviet Army Draft and his attempts in obtaining the Arba Minim for Sukkot for his community.
Written to R. David Potash, one of the wealthiest Jews in Russia and a supporter of many of the yeshivas and rabbinical leaders in Eastern Europe: “We received the etrogim and lulavim that you had sent us and I hereby express my thanks and blessings for your assistance. Behold, my son, Elazar Simcha, who has studied several years in the Novhardok Yeshiva and had then learned this past summer in Kletzk, known as Yeshivat Slutzk, has reached marriage age…. I entertained the thought of sending him to study in Eretz Yisrael to study in the Slabodka Yeshiva, but it is crucial for him to obtain the necessary visa. It is exceedingly hard to obtain the visa and I request your assistance to investigate the possibility of obtaining it, as it is a matter of life and death….
The etrogim we received are of high quality but the lulavim were ruined en route, with their tips splitting….”
R. Elchanan Wasserman (1875-1941) was a disciple of R. Shimon Shkop in the Telshe yeshiva and prominent disciple of the Chafetz Chaim. He served as lecturer and dean in the Brisk (Brest) yeshiva and in other places. During WWI, at the behest of the Chafetz Chaim, he established a yeshiva in Smilavichy (Minsk province, today Belarus), and R. David Potash was a leading supporter of the yeshiva. After the war, R. Elchanan founded Yeshivat Ohel Torah in Baranovich. In the interwar period, he served as rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Ohel Torah-Baranovich. When World War II broke out, Wasserman fled to Vilnius (Vilna). In 1941, while on a visit to Kaunas (Kovno), he was arrested by Lithuanian Nazi sympathizers with twelve other rabbis.
R. Elchanan Wasserman was taken and murdered by Lithuanian collaborators on the 12th of Tammuz, 1941, in the Seventh Fort of Kaunas Fortress. Before he was taken he gave this statement:
“In Heaven it appears that they deem us to be righteous because our bodies have been chosen to atone for the Jewish people. Therefore, we must repent now, immediately. There is not much time. We must keep in mind that we will be better offerings if we repent. In this way we will save the lives of our brethren overseas. Let no thought enter our minds, G-d forbid, which is abominable and which renders an offering unfit. We are now fulfilling the greatest mitzvah. With fire she [Jerusalem] was destroyed and with fire she will be rebuilt. The very fire which consumes our bodies will one day rebuild the Jewish people.”