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The Pelta Story – The Russian Side (chapter 8)

Baranovichi (Baranavichy, Belarus)

The town of Baranovichi [in Polish: Baranowicze], was located in the Novogrudok district of Byelorussia (now Belarus), it was founded in 1883. As a relatively new town, Baranovichi was built according to modern planning, with wide streets crossing at right angles. The town developed rapidly, with a population of 30,000 at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Situated at the hub of railroad lines – the North-South from Vilna to Lvov, and West-East from Warsaw to Moscow – Baranovichi held considerable strategic importance. Thus it was a site of wide-ranging economic activity and a center of commerce and light industry. The abundance of surrounding forests contributed to the development of various branches of the lumber industry (sawmills, etc.). The presence of Polish Army bases along the Russian border stimulated commercial opportunities in supplying goods and services for the army. The Poles were a minority among the local population of Russians and Byelorussians, a large percentage of the population being Jews. Although the town’s mayor was a Pole, the vice-mayor was Jewish.

From an economic standpoint the Jews were relatively prosperous, with an array of institutions typical of an established Jewish community. There were synagogues, yeshivos, charity and welfare funds, an orphanage, homes for the elderly, hostels, and soup kitchens for the needy.

Baranovichi was the seat of learning and culture for the inhabitants of the surrounding shtetls. In the commercial realm, it offered such modern institutions as cooperatives, mutual aid funds, craftsmen’s and tradesmen’s organizations, and banks.

In the period between the two World Wars (1920 – 1939), Baranovichi was under Polish rule. In September 1939, the Red Army invaded the territory, commencing the Soviet occupation. With the German attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 (“Operation Barbarossa”), the German army poured into the area. Within five days, Baranovichi was conquered. At the start of the city’s occupation by the Germans there were some 12,000 Jews living there, of whom about three thousand were refugees from Western Poland.

In September 1941, some two and a half months into the German occupation, SS men appeared in Baranovichi, headed by Obersturmfuehrer [Lieutenant] Adolf Lerner, the area’s commissar [commissioner]. A young lawyer named Krampe, an ardent Nazi, was put in charge of the Department of Jewish Affairs. From Kovno (now Kaunas) came Gestapo representatives headed by the Nazi Amelung and his young Lithuanian assistant, Josef Gurnievich, known as “the cruel Lithuanian.” That same month, a contingent of German field gendarmes [police] arrived, and a Byelorussian police force was set up to work beside them, including an investigative branch headed by one Dushenko. The “Jewish Committee” or “Judenrat ” [German: Jews’ Council], was organized according to the model of the prior community framework.

The first Aktion [in Yiddish: di shkhiteh, “the slaughter” – a raid and roundup for extermination], occurred on March 4, 1942 – the Jewish holiday of Shushan Purim. The commissar approached Chief of Police Chaim Weltman to send policemen to the “Green Bridge” (which was to become the execution site of Baranovichi Jewry) to “keep order.” Weltman turned to all the policemen, saying, “Boys, everyone’s getting on the truck; we’re going “ al Kiddush Ha-Shem‘.  He himself was first to board the truck. All forty of his men got on after him. When they finished their task of burial at the site of the mass killings, they themselves were shot in the back, every last one of them, by the Byelorussians.

Rav Elchonon WassermanRosh Yeshiva in Baranowicze

Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman (1875-1941) was a prominent Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva in pre-World War II Europe. He was one of the Chofetz Chaim’s closest disciples and a Torah scholar of note. In addition, he was a well known for being a strong opponent of secular Zionism. Rabbi Wasserman was born in Birz, Lithuania. He studied in the Telshe Yeshiva in Telz, Poland under Rabbi Eliezer Gordon and Rabbi Shimon Shkop and also at the Volozhin Yeshiva. Thereafter, he studied under Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik in Brisk.

He was appointed head of the Yeshiva of Amtshilov, where he won a reputation as an outstanding teacher. In 1907, after his marriage, he studied in the Kollel Kodshim in Radin, Russia, headed by the Chofetz Chaim. In 1910 he was appointed Rabbi of Brisk (now in Belarus). During World War I (1914) he returned to Radin.

The yeshiva moved to Smilovichi and Rabbi Wasserman was appointed its Rosh Yeshiva. After World War I (1918), he moved to Baranowicze, Poland (now in Belarus) where he founded yeshiva Ohel Torah, which became one of the most famous in Europe. He was one of the leaders of the Agudath Israel movement and was regarded as the spiritual successor of the Chofetz Chaim.

Rabbi Elchanon Wasserman had three sons. One of his sons, Rabbi Simcha Wasserman served as Dean of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Detroit in the 1940’s. Later on he  founded Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon in Los Angeles California in the 1950’s.  Eventfully he left Los Angeles and made Aliya to Israel and founded the Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon in Yerushalayim. Rabbi Wasserman’s other sons were named Naftoli and Dovid.

When World War II broke out Rabbi Wasserman fled from Baranowicze to Vilna, Lithuania.  In 1941, while on a visit to Kovno, he was arrested by the Nazis with twelve other rabbis and sent to his death.

Together with hundreds of his students they sanctified the Almighty’s G-d’s name. Witnesses have recounted that dreadful day, the 11th of Tamuz 5701, when the murderers came in to the study hall. He was in the midst of teaching the Talmud Tractate meseches Nidah. Reb Elchonon spoke quietly and calmly, as was his practice. Not even the sound of his voice was changed. On his face, his customary earnestness was still apparent. His tone betrayed no feeling for self, and he did not attempt to say good-bye to his son, Reb Naftoli. He spoke to everyone, to the whole House of Israel.

“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”,קרבנות  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 was destroyed and with fire she will be rebuilt”. The very fire which consumes our bodies will one day rebuild the Jewish people.”

He was murdered in 1941 at the Ninth Fort, Kaunas, Lithuania. 50,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis at this location alone.

About the Author
Arie E. Pelta, M.D., a Board Certified General and Colorectal Surgeon from the USA , made aliyah with his wife and 7 children in 2013. Received Rabbinical ordination in 1997. He is also a active Medical Corps Officer holding the rank of Captain in the IDF Reserves. Currently practicing in Laniado Hospital in Netanya; speciaizing in the surgical care of all problems of the colon, rectum and anus.
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