PRUZHANY YZKOR BOOK
THE LAST TWO RABBIS IN PRUZANA
By Dr. Anna Krakovski
Hagaon HaRav Eliyahu Halevi Feinstein was born in Slutzk, Russia, in 1843. his father, the Gaon Rav Aharon, was at that time the head of the Yeshivah in Slutzk, which flourished under his leadership. Financial difficulties, however, forced him to leave the Yeshiva in 1844, and take up the rabbinate in the nearby town of Storobin.
While Eliyahu was still a child, he astonished all the Torah scholars of the region with his intellectual capacities and devotion to learning. At seven he had mastered Seder Nezikin! The Gaon Reb Yossele Slutzker, who was Rosh Beth Din (Chief Rabbi) of Slutzk and one of the most prominent Gaonim of that period, took a strong interest in the child prodigy and bestowed on him a great deal of fatherly affection. He expressed the belief that Eliyahu was destined for greatness, and when the boy turned ten, Reb Yossele invited him to his home where he taught young Eliyahu personally and introduced him to many leading Torah authorities.
At the age of 13, Eliyahu became engaged to the daughter of the Gaon Reb Yitzchok Yechiel Davidowitz, the Rav of Karelitz, a descendant of the "Seder Hadorot." As an engagement gift, Reb Yitzchok Yechiel gave Eliyahu a rare copy of "Yad Malachi" and the youth filled the margins of the book with notations. After the engagement young Eliyahu left for the Yeshivah of Volozhin.
At that time, broke out in the Yeshiva of Volozhin the famous dispute between the "Natziv" (Reb Hirsh Leib Berlin) and Reb Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. The two sides decided to bring their case for a Din Torah before the leading authorities of the time: Reb Dovid Teveli from Minsk, Reb Zeev Wolf from Vilna, and the aforementioned Reb Yossele from Slutzk. When the Roshei Yeshivah came to greet the members of the Beth Din upon their arrival in Volozhin, Reb Yossele asked them: "and how is my Reb Elyenke?" The Roshei Yeshivah were very surprised; they knew that Reb Yossele did not bestow titles lightly, but they had to admit that they did not know of a Reb Elyenke. Reb Yossele replied that this ignorance indicated that something was amiss in the running of the Yeshivah...
After this incident, the Roshei Yeshivah paid attention to R. Eliyahu and recognized his superior abilities. The "Natziv" himself stated that the young student had already achieved in-depth command of the Ran and the Rashbah commentaries on the Talmud.
Just before turning 18, R. Eliyahu married his fiancée, Guta. She was remarkable for her kindness, her humanity, and her first-rate organizational skills. While her own generosity was limitless, she was also very adept at raising funds from others. The story is told about a known miser who was unable to turn down any of her requests. When his wife would tell him that the Rav's wife was approaching, he would often hide himself for fear of the "monetary loss," he knew, he could not prevent if directly approached by her. Until her last day she decided her energies to all who needed her. Many charitable foundations were set up with her help. In addition to her work on behalf of the orphan's home, the old age home, and other institutions, she was very involved with helping young couples get settled. A most important foundation was established to build housing for needy couples, and she supported this project above and beyond her capacities, at times even jeopardizing her own family's financial position for its sake.
After the marriage, Reb Eliyahu stayed about 2 years in the home of his father-in-law. Scholars of the time related that during that interval, he reviewed every part of the "Shulchan Aruch" four times and knew the entire work by heart.
During Pesach of 1863, his father passed away and the people of Storbin unanimously chose the young prodigy, Reb Eliyahu, still not 20, to replace his father as their Rav. R. Eliyahu, however, was reluctant to assume the obligations of such a position; he wished still to devote himself exclusively to the study of Torah. Reb Yossele from Slutzk intervened, and insisted that R' Eliyahu accept the position. In a moving demonstration of his deep affection for Reb Eliyahu, he stated publicly: "I wish to merit seeing my Reb Elyenke serving as a Rav in my own lifetime...'"
R. Eliyahu acceded to his request on one condition: his contract must specify that he was to be free from all communal obligations every day until 12 o'clock, apart from deciding questions of Halacha and Dinei Torah. In fact, he spent his entire morning engaged in Torah study, still wrapped in his tails;
He contented himself with only a glass of water upon awakening, and a cup of milk after Shacharith.
Soon communities were competing to obtain Reb Eluyahu as their Rav. After the Rav of Brisk (the Gaon R. Isser Yehudah, author of "Ezrat Yehudah") died, the community of Brisk invited R. Eliyahu to accept the Chief Rabbinate there. He declined the honor, however, preferring a schedule that allowed him to spend most of his day studying. Later, in 1870, he was asked to accept the rabbinate in Kletzk. This precipitated a dispute between Kletz and Storbin, and the issue was settled by a Din Torah; according to the decision of the Gaonim Reb Aryeh of Yhuman and Reb Gershon Tanchum of Minsk, the town of Kletzk attained the young Gaon as their Rav.
At that time in Russia a draft was in effect and each community was required to provide a certain number of youth for army service. The landlords took advantage of their wealth and power to free their own children from army service, at the expense of orphans and children of the poor, who were conscripted against any consideration of justice to meet the required quota. This terrible situation called for a courageous leader and Reb Eliyahu, despite his total immersion in scholarship and despite his modesty, rose to the occasion. With forcefulness and fearless pursuit of justice he fought relentlessly against the corrupt landlords for the rights of the poor. His fame spread throughout Russia and caused other courageous rabbis to model after him and join his efforts.
Pursuit of justice and acts of outstanding generosity mark this Gaon's life story again and again. He made many personal sacrifices to uphold the high moral standards he held himself to, and only a few of these will be mentioned here.
In the winter of 1874 his father-in-law the Gaon R. Yitzchak Yechiel z"l passed away, leaving a wife with six children. The family now had no means of support and no resources, and it seemed that the only solution would be to have R. Yitzchak's son-in-law R. Dovid Feinstein (father of HaGaon R. Moshe Feinstein who lives now in New York) replace his father-in-law. The people of Karelitz were opposed to this plan because they felt R. Dovid was still too young, but they were willing to have R. Dovid assume the post in three years' time if R. Elye would serve as their Rav in the meantime. For R. Elye to give up his post at Kletzk and move to Karelitz was an act of sacrifice that even his wife Guta thought was much beyond duty. It meant leaving with a new family from a large well-organized “ Kehilla “ for a relatively small town where conditions were so much harder!
Nevertheless, R. Elye spent the next three years in Karelitz. During that time he received requests from many communities to accept rabbinical positions which became available, but he refused them all, abiding by the agreement made. It was only about ten days before the three years were up that he accepted an offer from the city of Chaslavich in Reisin. A few days later he received a letter from R. Reuven of Amchislov asking in his own name and on behalf of his community that R. Elye agree to replace him, as he was moving to Dinaborg. Although this new offer was a much more attractive post than the one he had just accepted, R. Elye refused to consider backing down from his previous commitment.
In Reisin R. Elye found himself in an unfamiliar environment, among people of totally different temperament and customs, and in an atmosphere that was highly charged, due to the Czar's draft. Here he had to begin anew the old struggle to ease tensions between the landowners and the poorer people. Again, he succeeded in managing the complex situation. But other problems emerged, and a new chapter in R. Elye's life-work began. At that time, a movement was beginning among the Jews to settle outside the "Pale of Settlement" in towns such as Smolensk, Oriol, Kursk, Charkov, etc... Because this settlement was illegal, only small numbers of individuals would move out little by little. Assimilation posed a great threat to those people, isolated from the established communities. It was necessary to ensure somehow that they had access to rabbis, shochetim, mohelim, teachers, and scribes. Hagaon R. Eliyahu set about the risky task of securing from the government permits for rabbis and others to settle in those locations. Thus he laid the cornerstone for Jewish life in that region, and up until World War II the Jewish inhabitants there were still recalling his achievements.
R. Elye felt a strong responsibility not only to his community but to Eastern European Jewry in general. He understood political, economical, and educational realities, and was not afraid to take a lone stand and present a dissenting view to that of other Torah authorities when he felt important aspects of reality were being overlooked. He courageously confronted the issues and brought to them a lucid viewpoint which was vindicated by future events.
Two such occurrences stand out because they occurred in well-known congresses of the leading Jewish authorities of the time.
The first congress was held in Petersburg, after the pogroms of 1882. Reb Elye was the youngest participant at the meeting, which included R. Issac Eichanan from Kovna, R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of Brisk, R. Hirsh Leib Berlin of Volozhin, R. Eliyahu Chaim Meizel from Lodz, and R. Reuven from Dinaborg. The most important issue to be discussed was what steps the congress should take in the face of the pogroms. The proposal that received the most attention was one calling for a delegation of Jewish leaders to meet with the Czar, complain about what was happening and outline to him the awful consequences stemming from the fact that the enlightened classes stood by passively while the destruction took place.
Most members of the congress were satisfied with this proposal. They viewed the Czar as essentially neutral on the Jewish issue, having been misled by his advisers, and easily to be swayed by confronting him with the negative image that would ensue. R. Elye dissented. He believed that the pogroms had all occurred with the full knowledge and assent of the Czar who was actively involved in the plan of using persecution of Jews as a way of distracting the public from real causes of dissatisfaction with the regime. R. Elye felt that such a delegation would be useless, that it would only be subjected to humiliation by the Czar who would merely reproach the Jews for non-existent "crimes", and make a casual promise to help, on condition the Jews mend their ways. Sadly, R. Elye's predictions proved all too correct; the situation, moreover, worsened for the Jews.
In 1910 R. Elye participated again very actively in the second congress, which took place in Petersburg. Here again he called attention to important problems and offered solutions with great foresight. He was especially concerned about the issue of education. He felt that, because of important changes that had taken place in Jewish society, there was a need to improve the quality of education in the Chadarim and in the Yeshivohs, and to introduce certain subjects such as mathematics and language, so as to enable the young people to prepare for future vocations which they would eventually have to assume.
This proposal, however, met with a great deal of resistance. Vladimir Tyomkin, the well-known lawyer and community leader, writing about the congress, sharply criticized the proceedings and the participants. Only one man was spared his criticism. He wrote thus: "Amongst the participants I found only one 'enlightened' individual, Rav Eliyahu Feinstein of Pruzana. He alone displayed clear thinking and surprising depth in understanding the cultural, political, and economic situation."
Perhaps, had R. Elye's ideas been carried out, part of the subsequent turmoil in Jewish society could have been avoided...
In 1884, as mentioned above, R. Elye was appointed to be Rav of Pruzana, amidst great ceremony. In his contract, he stipulated those conditions for which he had already turned down proposals from larger cities, namely, that during half the day he was to be free of devote himself to study, research, and questions of Halacha except for emergency situations. A large part of this time was devoted to She'elot U'Tshuvot ; he was recognized world-wide as the greatest authority in Talmudic response.
Pruzana did not escape the great cholera epidemic which ravaged the county of Polesia, taking thousands of lives. In response to the situation, aid committees were set up, equipped with the most modern instruments available at the time, and public kitchens and tea rooms were established to serve free hot meals for the Jewish and non-Jewish population. The driving force behind all this activity was the Rav of Pruzana. The man who never spent a moment on himself, for whom the time for studying was more precious than anything, who was never seen to leave his study for even a brief walk to get some fresh air, this man went personally to visit the sick victims of cholera, attended to all their needs, and personally checked the functioning of the institutions, choosing not to rely on official reports.
On one occasion he noticed that the wealthier people paid for the food they consumed in the public tea rooms. Despite the employees 'explanations that this helped in the maintenance of the institution, he forbade the practice, explaining that it could embarrass those who could not afford to pay. Instead he urged the wealthy to make donations to the institutions, but to refrain from paying when they ate. Furthermore, he stipulated that the youth from the wealthy families volunteer to help serve and clean the buildings without pay.
He forbade fasting on Tisha B'Av, during the epidemic; however, despite his fragile health he did not allow himself to eat that day.
During the first days of Selichot, many serious cases of cholera were declared. After one grueling day, late in the evening, he asked his oldest son to accompany him to visit a sick person. On the way there, the son related that Meir the coachman had died, and that the health authorities had forbidden his pregnant wife and their children to leave the building. The Rav retraced his steps and went straight to the health commissioner. Despite the late hour, he was received and his request, to allow the woman and the children to spend the night elsewhere, was granted, on the condition that the burial take place very early in the morning.
The Chevra Kaddisha, however, concerned about the danger of infection, refused to enter the house of the deceased. Rav Elye issued an order to close all the synagogues and not to hold Selichot services. A large group of people came to the main synagogue, where the Rav was to be found, but he categorically rejected their demands to permit the Selichot services. He then stated: "It must be that from On High I have been designated to perform this Mitzva myself." And he left for the house of the deceased, accompanied only by one person. Upon seeing this, people began to gather around the house to try to persuade the Rav to go home and let them perform the task. He remained there, however, until the Tahara had been completed, and it was only after the burial that the synagogues were reopened for Selichot.
The eyewitness who relates this story tells of having overheard R. Elye speaking alone in the Beth Hamidrash: "Ribbono shel Olam", he said, "What will become of us if the plague continues how can one demand of people to expose themselves to the danger which the Tahara entails, especially when they do not fully comprehend the meaning of Met Mitzvah? How can they be expected to perform such an act of courage?" and then, R. Elye, who had such distaste for excessive display of emotions, broke down and cried. "From that day on," says the witness, "not one person died of cholera in Pruzana," and he continues, "the greatness of soul of the Tzaddik saved the city."
Even the gentiles who heard of the rabbi's act of self-sacrifice proclaimed "we owe him our well-being." Likewise, many years later, after a great fire devastated half the city, the people remarked: "and this happened while the rabbi was away from the city."
In fact, that fire disaster took place when R. Eliyahu had gone abroad to undergo prolonged treatment for a stomach ulcer. Scarcely had he begun the cure when he received a telegram from a community representative describing the disaster and entreating him to return.
Paying no attention to the doctor's insistence on his remaining for treatment, he left immediately for Pruzana. There he was confronted by a most difficult situation, since the government, never too generous in helping with such misfortunes, was even less interested in providing assistance for Jews. R. Elye acted quickly and decisively. He went to see the head of the Gubernia (regional government), who was an admirer of the Rav and presented him with what appeared to be a modest proposal. He asked that the government allow all donations of building materials, furniture, etc. to be transported to Pruzana without the usual tariffs levied for transportation.
The governor was quick to present the Rav's request to his friend the minister, and pressed him to fulfill the small request. At this, the minister smiled knowingly, acceded to the request, and remarked dryly that it would cost the Czar's treasury dearly. The result, indeed, was that Pruzana became an important relay station in the shipment of wood, building materials, and furniture to the whole of Western Russia. The money saved because of the tariff exemption was donated by the merchants for the rebuilding of the town. Thus Pruzana rebuilt itself in a remarkably short time.
An incident which occurred during the short occupation by the Bolsheviks (in 1920) illustrated additional qualities of his character. When the Bolsheviks defeated the Poles they knew a counter-attack by the Poles would not be long in coming.
The first step taken by the Russians was to draft all young men 18 and over. It was clear, however, that the Bolshevik occupation was only temporary, for they would not be able to retain control in the face of the counteroffensive mounted by the Poles and their Western allies. The unfortunate parents realized that, if drafted, their sons would be forever separated from them, as they would have to retreat with the Russian troops to the heartland of Russia. They felt desperate, and, as in every time of crisis, they came to R. Elye to seek his help. 1
The newly set up draft committee was housed in the Mostovlansky hotel directly opposite the Rav's home. Through its windows, one could see a constant flow of men and women entering and leaving the Rav's house. Since the young men did not come to enlist and were not to be found at home, it seemed that the Rav was advising them to hide out. It was decided to keep watch one or two more days on those who came to see Rav Eliyahu, and if indeed these were the parents of the potential draftees, then R. Eliyahu and his son-in-law would be arrested. A local gentile shoemaker who belonged to the draft committee passed this information on to the Rav's household and urged them to close doors to all visitors.
The household members pleaded with R. Eliyahu to do so. His reply was brief: "One does not close the door before despondent people who are seeking help." That very evening the police came to arrest the Rav and his son-in-law, but warned ahead, they had gone into hiding. The household stayed up all night, waiting fearfully to know if the police would find the hiding-place. At dawn shots were heard. Terrified, everyone went out to see what had happened. Reb Pesach the Baker hurried by to report that the Poles had returned, and the Bolsheviks had fled the town.
The stories abound of his personal courage and acts of sacrifice for individuals and for the community as a whole, but we are prevented from bringing more, due to lack of adequate documentation. Those who can remember him bear the image of a giant of spirit, a humane, sensitive, and humble man with affection and understanding for all people, regardless of social standing or age. Indeed, he was visibly affected by the innocence of children and showed a fine pedagogical sense in his interactions with them. He knew how to speak to them and always showed them respect. They, in turn, responded to him with great warmth.
Devoted as he was to the study of Torah and to the welfare of Pruzana, he turned down many offers from large and important communities. Despite this, after being asked twice to assume the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem, he agreed, because of his intense love of the land, and his great desire to live in Jerusalem. However, unforeseen circumstances prevented him from accepting the offer.
Rav Eliyahu's approach to the Talmud was strongly influenced by the method of the Vilner Gaon. His character and personality were particularly well suited for such an approach: deep, calm and logical, with an innate distaste for glossy appearances. He was sharply critical of complicated “pilpulim” or artificial dichotomies attempted more as an intellectual exercise than as a way of determining the true essence of the subject.
He passed away on the 27th of Tishrei, 1929. A pillar of Palestine was taken on that day. There were many eulogies given in the Diaspora and in Israel. Characteristic was the one given by Rav Sonenfeld (head of the extreme orthodox "Ey'da"), in which he stressed the loss to the nation, and expressed the thought that the religious aspect of Palestine could have been quite different if only R. Eliyahu had fulfilled his desire and assumed the Chief Rabbinate of Palestine. Alas we did not merit it.
Of the sons who lived after him, three lived in Russia, and one remained in Pruzana. All were learned in Torah, but chose secular livelihoods. They were businessmen of means and were active in community affairs. The oldest son R. Aharon was well-known in Ekaterinoslav (later called Dnieproptrovsk). His second son, R. Issachar Dov, who lived in South Russia, in Vinitza, quietly devoted energies and personal funds to many Zionist projects. Sadly, these families remained in Russia, as well as the son and daughter of R. Isaac, the third son, and the family of Leib who was a notable of Moscow.
The daughters of R. Eliyahu all married leading Torah scholars of the generation. The eldest daughter, Badana, was the wife of the Gaon R. Menachem Krakowski, famous Rabbi of Vilna. Of his many writings only two volumes were published, the "Avodat Hamelech" on Rambam, and a book of sermons "Arzei Halvanon". Badana herself was a charming person and a devoted helpmate. Her sister Pesha, wife of the Gaon R. Moshe Soloveitchik, was known for her intellect and wide knowledge of Jewish subjects. She helped her husband a great deal and was a strong influence in the education of her sons. We have already spoken, in another section of this book, of Zlata, the third daughter, wife of the Gaon R. David Halevi Feigenbaum, and the last Rabbinate of Pruzana. The last daughter Sara Rivka married the Gaon R. Eliezer Isaac Meizel, the beloved grandson and successor to R. Eliyahu Chaim Meizel. She, like her sisters, was cultured and well-versed both in Jewish and secular fields of knowledge. She died at a young age in Lodz before World War II. Her only child Mina perished with her father in the Warsaw Ghetto.
With the last Rabbi of Pruzana, the Gaon Rabbi David Halevi Faygenbaum, comes to a close in the most tragic fashion a long line of great scholars who served in that community for centuries. Among them were such luminaries as Rabbi Yehuda Leib Perlman (Hagadol from Minsk), Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Meizel (who then became Rabbi of Lodz), and Rabbi Eliyahu Halevi Feinstein.
Rabbi David Faygenbaum was born not far from Kiev in the Estate of his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Goldinberg, in 1889. Rabbi Abraham Goldinberg distinguished himself by his sharp talmudic mind and through his thorough understanding of business affairs. He had a weakness unusual for someone of his origins: a nostalgia for landed property. He felt that few things were more real than the possession of land. In order to fulfill his dream, which did not fit with the legal framework set by the Czar who forbade Jews the possession of land, he bought a large estate in the name of a Polish nobleman. The arrangement made was that the nobleman would guarantee the value of the estate by transferring to Rabbi Abraham's name some of his town properties. The financial guarantee provided, however, amounted only to a small percentage of the estate's value. Several years later, at the death of the nobleman, this arrangement unfortunately resulted in the fraudulent dispossession of the estate by the nobleman's sons who did not respect their father's commitment.
The years on the estate were years of great satisfaction and peace of mind for Rabbi Abraham. His house was truly a patriarchal house: all his sons and daughters had settled there, and Rabbi Abraham, who was very taken up by his business but nevertheless did not want to neglect Talmudic studies, had brought to his domain a well-known rabbi to help him keep to a regular schedule of studies.
This small community, made up of his family, employees, and farm workers, was perceived as exemplary by those living in the surrounding area. All those living on the estate held Rabbi Abraham in great esteem and were very devoted to him. His intelligent and highly educated wife, Dina, great granddaughter of Rabbi Meir of Constantine, elder son of Rabbi Yaakov Emden, helped him in many ways in establishing these good relations with the inhabitants of their little community.
The warm spiritual atmosphere was in harmony with the beautiful countryside and the young child, David, imbibed from both avidly. He was attracted by the fields and the forests which, to him, were full of mystery. In the stories he told as an adult, these early childhood memories which had made such a strong and agreeable impression on him, became intertwined with the stories told him by his parents, family, and friends, into a single integrated image.
His unusual memory had enabled him to store a wealth of Jewish folklore: miraculous tales of Rabbis, anecdotes concerning the lives and acts of great Rabbinic authorities from all corners of the Diaspora. David had, since early childhood, an acute sense of the relevant, of the apropos. Sayings from scholars, particularly striking works were always cited to the point, or brought in to illustrate in an especially effective manner the argument being made. His mother, Rabbi Abraham's daughter Bracha, whose education was far more extensive than that of young women of her time, was known for her strict principles and her strong will. She had known how to infuse her sons with an infinite love for the study of the Talmud, as well as a profound admiration and respect for her ancestor, Rabbi Yaakov Emden. Her husband, Rabbi Moshe Yaakov, while possessing a deep understanding and knowledge of the Talmud, was also well versed in philosophy, and in many aspects of general culture. In addition, his exceptional moral qualities and harmonious personality made him react with aversion to any form of extremism. His preference was for the golden mean, the derech hamelech.
Nevertheless, as concerned the education of his sons, he did not object to the methods of his wife, which emphasized Talmudic study to the exclusion of secular subjects. This silent agreement was no doubt rooted in a personal experience of his youth. Rabbi Moshe Yaakov, with his reputation as an illuy , represented a valuable target of opportunity for the spokesmen of the haskalah. It was their numerous efforts to attract him to their fold which left in him unpleasant memories. His conviction, however, was that young people were exposed to atheism not so much through the study of secular subjects, but because of the importance attached to that study. The elevation and promotion of Science to the level of the sacred, to the standing of a religion, implanted in the minds of young people unjustified doubts which deprived them of the integrity of belief.
Rabbi Hayim Aron, Rav David's brother, was older by five years. He was an accomplished Talmudic scholar with extensive knowledge and a strong analytical ability. He was quick to perceive his younger brother's outstanding intellectual gifts, and reacted to them with almost fatherly pride.
It was with such a warm and congenial atmosphere that the lad was surrounded until the age of fourteen. His teachers could not find words enough to praise his excellent memory as well as his exemplary devotion to study. Tanach, he learned until the age of eight. From then on he pursued only the study of Gemara, Posskim, and Te'shuvot. The extraordinary familiarity with Tanach that he had managed to acquire remained with him to the end of his days. He was able to find more appropriate Hebrew words and phrases than those commonly used by drawing from memory upon the texts of the Mishna and Tanach.
He could evaluate and weigh all the expressions and phraseology of the various writers, authors, and philologists, and explain the origin of particular expressions, their exactitude, or lack of precision. Rabbi David's method in the study of the Bible rested upon an in-depth examination of its texts, upon linguistic and logical comparisons, all of it against a varied background of Talmudic interpretation. His approach to Talmud was also based upon an exact, and logical, analysis of the texts. It was in Berdichev, residence of his family, that he studied until the age of fourteen. His parents then decided to send him to learn with the great Rabbinic authorities of the time so as to refine and enrich his knowledge further. Among these should be mentioned Rav Abraham Benyamin Kluger (son of the Gaon, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger), with whom the young David remained for several years. It is from him that he received his first "Semicha".
In a letter, Rav Kluger had underscored the young man's sharp analytical mind, and his deep and exact knowledge of all areas of the Talmud, Rishonim and Acharonim. Before the age of twenty, Rabbi David had received several other "Semichas" from other renowned authorities. His reputation as an Illuy having spread far and wide in the rabbinic world, it was not long before marriage proposals began to arrive in large numbers. When Zlata, the daughter of the Gaon of Pruzana was introduced to him and his family, their decision was instantaneous. They were impressed by her moral, intellectual, and physical qualities. According to an eyewitness, Rabbi David's mother (who was known for her keen critical sense), would have exclaimed at the time: "My most audacious dream has become a reality! I have found better than I thought was possible!" For his part, the Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu, was very impressed by the young " Illuy ”.
They were married two years before the first World War. In the family the story is told to this day of the impact that the young couple's physical appearance and demeanor had upon the wedding guests. The memory has persisted among family members and friends, about the young woman's majestic beauty. Poets and artists, who did not dare address directly compliments to her, were admitting that she was for them a source of inspiration. (Of all this she was totally unaware).
Despite all her beauty and charm there was no trace of feminine vanity in her--only a genuine search for self-betterment, a deep interest in, and understanding of, other people. It was these values also that guided her in her concept of what one should look for in a life companion. When it was mentioned to her that one was not forced to renounce worldly possessions in marriage, she would reply that the greatness associated with wealth left with it. The only real greatness, she would add, was that which derived from the Torah.
On the human plane, her relations to other people were full of devotion, but also deep and nuanced. She went beyond the superficial goals set by society, beyond the superficial reasons for which even true goals are pursued. From a very young age she had shown a spirit of self-sacrifice, of denial of the self. Yet, this was done not simply out of duty, but from a true understanding of the other. Her devotion to her parents was a symbol of total love. She was the only person among those that I have known to willingly forego, not only of her own self, but of her own children, in favor of her parents--she who was the incarnation of motherhood.
Her activities, both as a Rabbi's wife, and as a community worker, were accomplished discreetly and with total commitment. When, on occasion, someone would reproach her for doing too much for those who perhaps did not deserve it, she would reply: "they act according to their conscience, and I act according to mine."
Her outward appearance, her beauty and charm, impressed people to the extent that they did precisely because they reflected her inner qualities, her intelligence, her generosity and unbounded faith. Her psychological insight into human nature allowed her to differentiate among people, not on the basis of their standing in life and society, but according to their true and more real traits of character. Her love for human beings in general started with her fondness for children, and her success in the field of education was rooted in the respect which she accorded equally to both children and adults. For all her inner seriousness, she had an excellent sense of humor, and was full of gaiety. She knew how to tell stories from the past, and imitate people with talent so as to bring to life their characters. More significantly, she knew how to create a lively and interesting atmosphere so that no one was ever bored in her presence. In any gathering the question invariably asked by newcomers was: "Who is this enchanting lady?"
The young Rav David's time, understandably, was taken up by the study of the Talmud. In the few rare moments, however, when he found it possible to engage in general conversation, he demonstrated excellence in that as well. His stories fascinated his listeners. Experts in the tales of great Talmudic authorities, in the tales of the Hassidim, or simply of comical stories and jokes (Hershel Ostropoler, Yankel Yok, etc.) were always asking from the Rav for more stories that could not be found in the published sources. Knowledgeable persons would turn to him for answers to problems in various fields, among which were philosophy and philology (he knew several languages fluently, an unusual thing among Rabbis). All of this had been acquired during rare spare moments, for he remembered well his mother's teaching not to waste time on secular subject matter. He never forgot that he had learned Russian during "Nittl" (Christmas night) alone, for his mother was insistent on not studying Talmud from December 24 in the evening until the next evening.
Instead of choosing a more comfortable life with his parent, who were well-to do, the young couple opted to remain in residence with the Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu, so that Rav David could learn under the influence of his father-in law.
A short time later the First World War broke out. All those who could were then fleeing to the more remote parts of Russia, to move as far away as possible from the front. The young couple refused to follow this course and leave Rabbi Eliyahu behind. The latter was not willing to leave his community at a time when it was in danger.
Already at a young age Rav David began to help his father-in-law in his rabbinical duties. It was especially during the German invasion that he had the opportunity to provide valuable assistance. His knowledge of the occupant's language allowed him to be of help both with regard to economic and legal matters. He was selected by the Regional Judge as a representative of the Jewish community at the Court of Justice of the Occupant. This particular period was a difficult one for everyone, and full of trials and accomplishments for the young Rabbi. He had the occasion to learn a great deal in the way of practical matters, and to show enormous qualities through his devotion and self sacrifice.
The most difficult thing for him in his private life was the separation with his parents and his brother. All communications had been cut off with the German invasion, and he remained without any news from them for some three years.
About a year after the Bolshevik Revolution, he received from his brother the terrible news concerning the death of his parents who had passed away that same year. The dastardly deeds of the Communists had served, without doubt, to shorten their lives: they both died in their sixties. The suffering this tragedy engendered was beyond the bounds of human endurance. Yet Rabbi David showed an unusual courage and managed not to let his sadness show in public. It was only in the privacy of his home and family that, at times, the toll this was taking on him, and the real measure of his sentiments, could no longer be contained. Broken in his innermost, he nevertheless continued to manage the affairs of the community as heretofore. The study of the Torah, as well as his writings, slowly began to give him some consolation.
By the time of the Holocaust, the greater part of his writings had not yet been made ready for publication. There were at the time only two volumes of his Hiddushim which had been reviewed and edited by him, but not yet published. To our great sorrow, all these writings were lost in the Holocaust together with the manuscripts of his father-in-law, the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu. As is known, only one volume of the writings of this latter, Halichot Eliyahu was printed in Vilna in 1931, with an introduction of the Gaon Rabbi David.
His approach to the study of the Talmud was an integration of a number of methodologies derived from his. renowned teachers. And, since he had studied with authorities from varied places, his own method was highly nuanced. He was successively influenced by the outlook of Rabbi Shloimele Kluger, then with that of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, and specialized in the approach of his father-in-law, which itself was a composite of the methodologies of the great sages of Lithuania. The fatherly attitude of his father-in-law encouraged the flowering of many exceptional qualities in Rav David. He who has had an opportunity to live in the shadow of Rav Eliyahu will understand the tremendous influence that such a great man had on all those around him. The Gaon Rabbi David used to remind his listeners that Torah learning was not concentrated in one place or country, nor within one single approach, and liked to refer to authorities without mentioning their geographical origins. He would often say to the bachurei yeshiva of Mir and Kletsk who visited him, that just as a Gaon did not have a fixed place of abode, so it was not possible to refer to one as coming from one origin or another.
When he was still very young, he was offered several very respectable positions. As Rabbi Eliyahu had by then lost his wife, Rabbi David did not see fit to move and leave his father-in-law by himself. He therefore rejected the offers, and remained in Pruzana as Associate Rabbi.
Brought up in well to do surroundings in which certain professions were looked down upon, HaRav David nevertheless was able to shake off these prejudices due to his broadmindedness. Yet certain things did remain. HaRav David was, for example, loath to accept honorarium which at the time constituted the major income of Rabbis. After a while people even stopped trying, imagining, no doubt that he did not need them. All this was taking place at a time when it was fully realized that the assets of the young couple, tied up as they had been in Czarist notes and securities, were lost forever. While in their home matters of money were rarely, if ever, mentioned, while one talked neither of the wealth of former days nor of the constraints of the present, HaRav David could nevertheless feel the silent reproach of his entourage.
The news from Russia was disastrous. All his parents', as well as his brother's, real estate holdings had been seized by the Bolsheviks. The latter had thereupon demanded that his brother nevertheless continue to make all necessary repair and maintenance work. Deprived of the means to comply with their demands, HaRav David's brother was forced to leave his native city so as to avoid imprisonment. This move to a different republic made the difficult communications with the family even more complicated. Deeply affected as he was by what was happening in Russia, HaRav David nevertheless talked but little about the subject. He avoided political discussions even when certain leftist elements attempted to draw him out and express his viewpoint. Eyewitnesses recount having heard him, at the beginning of the nineteen twenties, answer one of the pertinent questions concerning the alleged advantages of the Revolution: "Europe is now more than ever in a state of disequilibrium. Bolshevik tortures in the name of social justice will before long bring about a reaction from the European, but more particularly the German Right which will surpass in cruelty the Soviet horrors."
New problems were cropping up in the community. Political parties were being born which sought to enlighten the masses. New schools were being formed which broke with traditional Jewish education. These conditions demanded a great deal of adroitness to mediate effectively among the various cultural and religious currents which passed, often without warning, from revolutionary ideology to action. HaRav David, regardless of the beliefs and ideological convictions of the parties concerned, was always ready to help those who became embroiled with the Polish Government. He was highly regarded by the authorities, this despite the fact that he had to have recourse to the Russian language, virtually banned then, in order to communicate with them.
At times this resulted in ambiguous situations, as for instance during the visit of Prime Minister Vitos. One Friday morning, the Rabbi, like the representatives of the other communities, received an invitation to participate on Saturday morning in the reception being given for Prime Minister Vitos. The invitation clearly underscored the fact that the welcoming addresses by the community representatives could only be given in Polish. People wondered what the Rabbi would do under these conditions. One of the more active members of the community (of the left faction) came forward and offered to speak in the Rabbi's place. Rather than accept, HaRav David instead requested from this person that he supply him with a Polish Grammar and Dictionary. Bewildered, this latter complied.
The Rabbi's speech made a strong impression on the Prime Minister. At the ensuing reception, Prime Minister Vitos thanked him for it, and was about to engage with him in a conversation in Polish, when he heard the priest seated next to him murmur in his ear: "If his excellency wants to talk to the Rabbi, he can only do so in Russian, for all that he knows of Polish he put in his address." The Prime Minister probably never forgot this incident, for he later was particularly well-disposed toward HaRav David. His linguistic aptitudes were often of service both to the community and to the region as a whole. Once, for instance, during the Russo-Polish war of 1920, HaRav David had had to see the Polish regional military commander on a community matter. The superior officer, after having acceded to the Rabbi's demand, added: "this is probably the last time we will met. We expect a Bolshevik offensive very shortly, and I am afraid we will be leaving the area." To This, HaRav David replied that he wished him well. And, drawing on a Rabbinic saying, he added that while one could say that a mountain would never meet another, one could not emit the same certitude about the future of men.
The destruction and havoc visited by the Bolsheviks during the six weeks of their occupation lasted beat all records. Worse than requisitions and famine however, was the declaration of a general mobilization for those aged eighteen and over. Both the occupier and the local population knew that the Russian army, dubbed "the barefoot army", had no chance whatsoever to stand up to the new, Western supported, Polish forces that were approaching. Thus, the young conscripts who would escape with their lives from the battlefield would be taken to the ends of Russia, and be cut off forever from their families. The despairing parents were continuously coming to Rav Eliyahu for counsel and advice. What should they do? Continue to hide their young men and risk the worst of punishments, or to let them depart forever? 1
At the mobilization center, located at the Hotel Mostovlanski, and across from the Rabbi's residence, these comings and goings had been noticed. As the young men did not report for induction to the Center, and could not be found in their homes, an inescapable conclusion had been drawn: the Rabbi was at the root of the problem. The authorities allowed it to be leaked to the Rabbi and his family that unless he were to desist from his interference with the mobilization process, he and his son-in-law, HaRav David, would be arrested forthright. HaRav Eliyahu categorically rejected the ultimatum, saying that he refused to close his door to the despairing who thought that he could be of help. The next day, the arrest warrant was signed. At the urging of their family, HaRav Eliyahu and HaRav David agreed to hide at neighbors'. In the Rabbi's home the night was one of tense waiting and anxiety. At dawn, the distant noise of canon was heard. A little later the Poles were back in the city. Despite the hatred of the Bolsheviks, the return of the Poles was not a joyous occasion.
The molestations and looting by the soldiers are-well-known. The entire city was shuttered, shops were closed, people locked up in their homes. The least noise was a cause of trembling and shudder. The next morning there were knocks at the Rabbi's door. Deathly silence. The knocks continued, this time against the shutters, accompanied by supplications in Yiddish: "Please open, please open". A couple in tears was mumbling words that could not be understood. Finally, the gist of what they were saying became clear: their son, walking alone at dawn near where they lived, had been arrested by the Poles and accused of showing the way to the Polish camp to the Russians. He was going to be shot the very same day. Only the Rabbi could save him.
At that moment, when even the simple act of stepping outside one's home was fraught with danger, attempting to go to the military commander's headquarters appeared as sheer madness. An elderly lady, who was staying with the family during those days of danger, voiced her disapproval of the Rabbi's going. HaRav David, his head low, more like a guilty party than a hero, went out, crossed the center of the city between two rows of soldiers shouting: "Rabbi! Jew! Communist!" Once at the Headquarters, in perspiration and out of breath, he was confronted with the sentries' firm refusal: "No access to civilians!"
Suddenly, as if by miracle, the door of the office opened, and the Rabbi was face to face with the Military Commander himself. This latter extended his hand, saying: "The Rabbi's blessing was heard. Here I am again! What grave matter brings you here at such an inauspicious moment?" And the Rabbi to explain the case: "Reliable witnesses can testify that the condemned man is retarded, at the level of idiocy." The officer's face grew darker: "Of what weight before martial law are the testimonies of people who would undoubtedly be accused of being biased, tainted?" HaRav David, at a loss for further arguments, said: "Perhaps it is to prove that you, unlike the Bolsheviks, are possessed of justice, that G-d made you come back". The Commander, spontaneously extending his hand, said: "You have won me over. The necessary arrangements will be made so as to allow you to testify in person before the military tribunal." After the formalities of reconvening the military tribunal had been completed (anxious moments for the Rabbi's family), the military commander promised HaRav David that he would, within the realm of the possible, make sure that order be restored in the city. He then gave the Rabbi a military escort, and added as parting words: "You have risked your life to save that of a retarded person."
The above retold but one of the many actions accomplished by Rav David in a spirit of self-denial, forgetting in the process what he owed to himself and to his family. He refused his help neither to individuals nor to organizations. He established yeshivot, schools, orphanages, and homes for the aged. He helped generously by word and deed all those who worked for the good of Judaism. For ten years as the aid of the Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu, and for another seventeen as his successor, he participated in all the public affairs of the city and the state. Constantly disturbed during his hours of study, he would justify the interferers, saying that community affairs had priority attention.
During the nineteen thirties, he devoted a part of his time to studying with his sons, Abraham Yitzhak and Aharon Baruch, who distinguished themselves both by their unusual capabilities, and by their desire to perfect themselves in Talmudic studies. The first to grant them Semicha -- respectively at the ages of nineteen and eighteen was HaGaon Rabbi Baruch Epstein, the author of "Torah Temimah". In a letter to their parents, he expressed his admiration for the two exceptional young men, as well as his belief in their great promise and potential for the future. They were indeed rare exceptions in their ability to fusion and unite the two worlds of Torah and secular general knowledge.
After having studied at the Universities of Vilna and Warsaw, they were continuing their education at the Sorbonne in Paris, when the Second World War began. Having returned home on vacation in the summer of thirty-nine, they were then not allowed by the authorities to leave Poland again. The young people of Pruzana who escaped from the Holocaust have told of how, and with what devotion, the two sons of HaRav David would organize the study of the Talmud during the Communist occupation. They would be cited as examples of high moral values and of an authentic Judaism. Rabbi David Faygenbaum, his wife Zlata and their two sons Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak and Rabbi Aaron Baruch lost their lives in Auschwitz at the end of January 1943, together with the Jews of Pruzana. Those who have survived from among the family of HaRav David are his son, Samuel Feigenbaum, and his daughter, Anna Krakowski. Married and the father of two sons, the former, a chemical engineer by profession, works in Paris at the Ministry of Defense. Anna Krakowski and her two sons live in New York, where she is a Professor at Yeshiva University. Aside from her publications on Nineteenth Century French literature, she has also contributed to Jewish studies, and has published a book on the intellectual life in the Warsaw Ghetto.
1 Editor note: It seems surprising to read that two rabbis relate same episodes in these lines