Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Correspondence with Professor Alan Dershowitz Regarding Rav Elchanan Wasserman

Rabbi Ari Kahn
    Hashaked 5/3 Givat Zev
     Jerusalem Hills 90917
     p.o.b. 443

18 Elul 5756
September 2nd 1996 

Professor Alan Dershowitz
Harvard University
Boston, Mass.

Dear Alan,
I hope that this note finds you well. Thank G-d everything is well here, things returned to normal .....

Prior to your request for the letter of Rav Elchanan Wasserman, (which we discussed) I began to search for it myself.  My gut reaction was similar to yours, “How can a man leave America to knowingly be killed in Europe?” I had heard some of the legends surrounding Rav Elchanan's demise over the years, and I had never taken the time to try to distinguish fact from fiction. As a result of our discussion I decided to research the issue, therefore I thank you for being the impetus for this learning and clarification.

The legends spoke of a man leaving the comforts of America in order to be with his students in Europe, much in the way of a captain   going down with his ship[1]. When confronted by the enemy he never stopped teaching Torah, and like Rabbi Akiva of old, he died after giving a class about martyrdom. Eyewitnesses described him as looking like an “angel of G-d”. Reportedly some of the Nazis were afraid of the Rabbi who “glowed”, but in the end he was taken out and shot.
I can not evaluate where the facts end, and embellishment begins. However, I have succeeded in reconstructing some the pertinent facts.

As for the letter, I had assumed the letter was in His collected writings called in Hebrew “Kovetz Mamarim”. Indeed , I found one letter, written to the “Young Israel” movement dated 1939 [2].  The letter, however does not explain anything on a personal level, rather he responds to their willingness to help[3]. He responds almost exclusively on a theological level, with an analogy of a medical patient who complains of symptoms; the doctor should treat the symptoms, but more importantly should find the cause. So, too, the Jews in Europe are suffering greatly, but what is the spiritual cause? And what is the spiritual prescription? He proceeds to analyze the spiritual issues which he thinks should be brought to the attention of the masses. Interesting, but not what I was looking for.

In the course of searching for the letter, I was, as I said, able to reconstruct some important facts:

      1.     Most importantly, Rav Elchanan left America before the war began, and no one knew at the time what was in store for European Jewry. I was told by a friend, who was a student of Rav Elchanan`s son Rav Simcha, that he once discussed this with Rav Simcha who said  “my father had no idea of what would be; had he known, he never would have returned[4] to Europe.
2.     The people that discussed with him, the possibility of his staying in the U.S. reported great ambivalence[5]. He was torn, obviously aware that returning meant some type of danger, but he felt he was needed in Europe.
Here are some of the quotes attributed to Rav Elchanan: When told that his other 2 sons may be able to escape he replied “What about my other 400 sons (the number of students in his yeshiva)? [6]
When asked pointedly how in terms of Jewish law he was permitted to return he said “I am a soldier who must return to the front”[7]
3.     Once back in Europe and the nefarious plans of the Nazis became clear he instructed people that anything that can be done to avoid danger must be done.[8]
4.     Rav Elchanan himself tried on numerous occasions to escape, mainly to Israel[9], once the real horrors of the Holocaust became clear.[10]

The letter however was not mentioned in the biography or any other secondary source. To make a long story short, I finally found a photocopy of the letter, the main section reads:

Friday Parshas Naso Talma[11]

I received your letter but I could do nothing about it, so I did not respond. I am unable to bring the students to the Yeshiva of Dr. Revel or Beis Medrish Litorah in Chicago, for they are both places of spiritual danger, for they are run in a spirit of “free thinking” [prevalent in these places]. What would one gain to escape physical danger in order to then confront spiritual danger? But I sent your letter to Rabbi Shlomo Heiman the head of the Yeshiva Mesifta Torah VaDaas in Brooklyn. My advice is that you contact him and have him write a letter to------ the address is------------------
Elchanan Bunim Wasserman

Some important background
1.     The consideration of physical danger and spiritual danger, can be found in the writings of many sages, most notably the famed Chafetz Chaim, Rav Elchanan`s  mentor , had said such things about America, especially before and during World War one.
2.     Even during the early part of the War Rav Elchanan was concerned about people with young impressionable children who were contemplating going to America.[12]
3.     Having been to America and personally seen the relative spiritual wasteland that it was, Rav Elchanan was further (initially) convinced that the old policy of the Chafetz Chaim should remain in force.[13]
4.     I sense some ambivalence in the letter; was he against coming to America, or was the problem Y.U. (“Dr. Revels Yeshiva”)? Was he perhaps simply trying to get an invitation from a more acceptable yeshiva?

In conclusion, I think the facts stand on their own, but of course you and all students of history will draw their own conclusions. My study brought me in touch with a great Jew who lived and died for his people, and was dedicated to his students in a manner which is unfathomable to the modern mind.
We are bidden in Pirki Avot not to judge our friend until we find ourselves in his place. Perhaps by judging people we tempt Fate, as it were, to put us in that place. Let us hope and pray that no Jew - no person - is ever put in that type of situation again.
If I can be of assistance in any way please do not hesitate to contact me.
May the coming year be a year of health and prosperity to all of G-d`s children. May you and your family enjoy health and happiness, and may you be inscribed in the book of the righteous.


[1] One can find this phrase in Rav Elchanan`s, justification for returning to eastern Europe from London in the spring  of 1939 Or Elchanan  (A biography written about the man and his teachings)page 213, although the source also cites a more mystical consideration.
[2] I later saw the letter referred to as the last published letter
[3] This is my assumption - their letter was not published
[4] As it was, he did instruct his son to stay in the U.S. Legend: Rav Simcha reportedly said that it was then that he realized that he would never have children, (see below).
[5] Or Elchanan page 213, the source was his son Rav Simcha
[6] “Or Elchanan” page 212.
[7] Or Elchanan page213
[8] Or Elchanan page 239,270
[9]  A Facsimile of the letter is in Or Elchanan on page 273, notice the handwriting matches the letter which I found.
[10] Or Elchanan page 271, it is recounted that once he was waiting online for a visa to Israel, one of his students was in front of the line and tried to entice Rav Elchanan to trade places on line, Rav Elchanan refused. See page 276 for other attempts at escape.
[11] Apparently the name of the city he was in, no year is given.
[12] Or Elchanan 246, 247
[13] Rav Elchanan was in America primarily for fund-raising purposes.

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