December 28, 2000
The building that once housed the famed Mir Yeshiva is now home to a co-ed trade school.
(Photo By Elli Wohlgelernter)
By Elli Wohlgelernter
(December 28) MIR, Belarus - There are still students learning here in the old building of the Mir yeshiva, studying each day from 9:30 to 2:30. They do not, however, argue the complex points of talmudic logic, as they did for 125 years, but rather the simple ways a tractor can best make a U-turn.
The two-story building, sitting in the middle of three dunams with a tree-lined backyard, is now a 220-student trade school. From six neighboring villages, teenage Belarus boys come to learn how to drive cars and tractors, and girls - girls! - are taught how to sew, or train to become nurses and kindergarten teachers.
It is hard to imagine that here once stood one of the great yeshivot of Europe, in a town among a handful whose very names symbolized the epitome of Torah scholarship in prewar Europe.
It is not hard to imagine, however, how they lived, for this town of 4,000, an hour west of Minsk, still survives exactly like what we once called a shtetl. It is a place where water flows not just from pumps that line the streets, but also in wells from which you draw the old-fashioned way, cranking a bucket up and down.
The houses are built from stone or wood, lining roads paved with mud and stone, or side streets that are just mud. Outhouses sit in the backyard next to toppling sheds, and townsfolk work the land with horse-drawn plows.
Outside the general store, a Tevye-the-milkman has his horse and wagon parked, with two metal milk cans standing in the back. Indeed, to say this village is a live backdrop for a theatrical performance of Fiddler on the Roof would modernize the ambiance.
Ten meters from the trade school is the building which once housed the beit midrash (study hall), where nearly 500 students sat and learned. Today it is a local bank branch. The building across the road that was the dormitory - and where you can see through slits in the windows what appears to have been a mikve [ritual bath] - is all boarded up.
The school's administrator, Vladimir Gavina, says the classroom building, which is heated by coal- and wood-burning furnaces, is now a state-protected landmark. Almost every week, he says, Jews come here to visit, mostly from Israel and America.
"We are trying as best we can to keep the flavor of the place," Gavina says, but there are no signs of anything Jewish. There are no posters at all, in fact, except one hanging over the back door: "If you live in a village, you must master technique."
Two blocks away from the school is the building that was once the town synagogue. Today it is divided, one half a post office, the other the town's electricity and phone center.
If there is any indication that Jews once lived here - a 1921 census showed they comprised 55 percent of the town's population of 4,000 - it is of course the cemetery, but that too is vanishing.
Surrounded by a 150-cm. stone wall and measuring three football fields in length, the earth here grows wild, except in the corner closest to the street, which shows evidence of once having been a vegetable garden.
By climbing over the wall and walking across the middle of the field, one can see faint Hebrew writing on some headstones; and those that are even visible have only a few centimeters left before they too will be buried by time.
An hour north from here is a bigger town, which in its prime - the 19th century - included the greatest yeshiva in the world, Volozhin. The yeshiva building, built in the 1860s, still stands, and a plaque by the entrance in Hebrew, English and Russian tells you that this was once the Etz Haim Yeshiva, named after Reb Haim Volozhin, who founded it in 1803.
It was the mother of all yeshivot, the breeding ground for great rabbis and teachers, and dynasties like the Soloveitchiks, where 400 students learned Torah 24 hours a day. Prospective students were required to be fluent in three tractates of Talmud, and unlike other yeshivot, which concentrated on just seven tractates of Talmud, the teachers in Volozhin would give classes in all 63.
Before the war there were 3,500 Jews who lived in the town, over half its population, but the yeshiva building, now locked, is all that remains of what was once Jewish, except for the cemetery in the middle of town.
There, along its inside border, there is garbage strewn about, having been tossed over the wall from the surrounding streets; but there are many gravestones that still stand straight, with the common names of Jews that can easily be read: here is Pollack, here Ginsburg, there Rogovin, and Kagan.
There are many graves of the Persky family, relatives of Shimon Peres and Lauren Bacall. There is a memorial tombstone to the Jews who died in the Holocaust, and in the middle of the field stands the grave of Reb Haim Volozhin.
And that is all that remains. Throughout Europe, in villages and towns like Mir, Volozhin, Telshe, Slobodka, Kamenetz, Grodno, and Baranowitz, the story is the same: the souls of buildings once synonymous with Torah have been gutted, though their shells may still stand. But their spirit yet lives, transferred to places like the Mir yeshiva in Jerusalem, the largest in Israel, which today boasts over 3,500 students.
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