Rav Grainom Lazewnik, born in 1915, is a talmid of Novardok in Europe who also learned by the Steipler while there. Among the many other Torah luminaries he met over the course of his long life, bli ayin hara, were the mashgiach of Baranovich, Rav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky; Rav Aharon Walkin; and the Gerrer Rebbe, the Imrei Emes. He fought in both the Polish and Russian armies and ran sabotage missions for the partisans against the Nazis during WWII, surviving only through open miracles. Indeed, Rav Lazewnik is a witness to the history of yesteryear.
In the heart of Flatbush there is a nondescript red brick semi-detached house, typical of the neighborhood. If not for the tiny metal sign reading “Mosad Adar Gbyr,” one might miss Rav Lazewnik’s shul entirely. Going in, one is presented with two doors. One door opens to the beis midrash; the other leads to an old, rickety staircase going up to the Rav’s apartment. The shul looks as if time has stood still since 1970, when it first opened its doors. The walls are covered with wooden paneling, and the bookcases are filled with old sefarim whose bindings are tearing at the seams. The chairs and pews also date back to the same era.
When I first got married, I lived around the corner and used to daven there frequently. It was obvious that Rav Grainom hailed from prewar Europe, but I always assumed he was in his 80s. After davening there for a while, I sometimes attended the Rav’s Gemara shiur. One time, during the shiur, Rav Lazewnik offhandedly mentioned that he had learned by the Steipler Gaon, Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky in Novardok. I remember being amazed, and I wondered how old he really was.
Rav Lazewnik’s apartment is also from another era. I find Rav Grainom sitting at a tiny table with six small chairs crammed around it. A bright lamp is shining on a specially made extra-large-print gemara. The kitchen looks like it was already outdated 50 years ago and is barely wide enough for an average-sized person to move around in it. Next to the gemara lies a well-worn Chovos Halevavos, as would befit a talmid of the mussar-oriented Novardok yeshivos.
Rav Grainom looks up from Masechas Arachin as I walk in and motions for me to speak up. “Ich her shoin nit azoi gut,” he tells me. “I don’t hear so well anymore.” Having recently recovered from an illness, he told the shul’s gabbai to keep his name on the list of cholim in need of a refuah, because he still has difficulty getting around on his own and uses a walker. “You came to hear for my history?” he then says in heavily-accented English. “Do you really have so much time?” (The Rav has been isolated since the onset of COVID-19 and has only recently returned to davening with the tzibbur after being vaccinated. Amazingly, the year in isolation hasn’t affected his mental acuity.)
Rav Grainom was born in Lenin, located near Pinsk in Poland (now Belarus). His father, Reb Yaakov, was the gabbai and was one of the most respected balebatim in town. “He wasn’t a wealthy man by any means, but we had what to eat. That might not sound like much, but in those days this wasn’t something that most people took for granted. When I was 11, my father took me out of the local talmud Torah and hired a rebbe, because he felt that it was time for me to start learning Gemara. Our rav, Rav Moshe Milstein, had tried to establish a local yeshivah, but the maggid shiur had left for Novardok. Although most bar mitzvah-aged boys in my town went to Kletzk, I chose to follow my maggid shiur to Pinsk.”
Novardok and the Steipler
Instead of establishing one large yeshivah, the Alter of Novardok, Rav Yosef Yozel Horowitz, felt that Torah would best be disseminated by making it more accessible. He therefore sent talmidim to cities across Europe to open smaller yeshivos. The Novardok network boasted hundreds of yeshivos, but the three main ones were located in Bialystok, headed by Rav Avraham Yoffen, the son-in-law of the Alter; in Mezritch, helmed by Rav Dovid Bleicher; and in Pinsk, where Rav Shmuel Weintraub was the rosh yeshivah.
“I was farhered by the Steipler Gaon. He told me to prepare a blatt Gemara and asked me a few questions. Thankfully, the main kashe was a Tosafos so I was able to answer,” Rav Grainom says humbly. “Shortly after I got there, the maggid shiur left because the yeshivah couldn’t pay him, so I joined the Steipler’s shiur. I was 14 at the time.
“I remember Rav Chaim Kanievsky as an infant,” he continues when prompted. Asked to describe the Steipler’s shiur, he says, “It looked nothing like a shiur in today’s yeshivos. The room wasn’t very big, and 60 bachurim were crowded around the maggid shiur from all sides. The Steipler didn’t say any chiddushim in his daily shiur. The bachurim were supposed to prepare the sugya, and Rav Yaakov Yisrael [the Steipler] would go around calling on different talmidim to explain the Gemara, Rashi and Tosafos, throwing in corrections when needed. Sometimes he felt that we didn’t grasp the sugya well enough, so he would elucidate it a little more. I used to try to stand behind him so he wouldn’t notice me, but everybody got his turn,” he says in his self-deprecating manner, poking fun at his short stature.
“Once a week, the Steipler would give a shiur klali to the whole yeshivah, starting with the pashut pshat in the sugya. He would then dissect the Rishonim’s phraseology and then tie it all together with his magnificent chiddushei Torah. That summer zman we covered almost 50 dafim in Bava Metzia; nowadays, the yeshivos cover maybe three or four. I don’t know how one can gain any knowledge that way. After that one zman we graduated from the Steipler’s shiur and learned b’chavrusa, at which point we only had the shiur klali.”
“Did you develop a kesher with the Steipler?”
“Not really. None of the talmidim did. He would leave the yeshivah as soon as he finished the shiur.”
Rav Lazewnik’s face and voice don’t betray much emotion, but it seems as if I can detect some regret in this answer. “The yeshivah had a general meeting every Erev Rosh Chodesh before Yom Kippur Katan, during which anyone associated with the yeshivah was allowed to voice his opinion. Those were the only times he spoke to the bachurim.” Nonetheless, Rav Lazewnik still considers himself the Steipler’s talmid. During his summers in upstate New York, he would frequently toil over a sugya with the Steipler’s sefer Kehilas Yaakov next to his gemara.
Reminiscing about the Steipler’s shmuessen he recalls, “His shmuessen weren’t like the ones that were customary in Novardok. A regular shmuess would be delivered rousingly, with a style and tone that pushed the emotional buttons of the bachurim. The Steipler was more reserved and methodical, presenting his points through proofs from various maamarei Chazal. They felt more like a Gemara shiur. The Steipler often spoke about Torah lishmah and the Gemara in Nedarim (81a) that links the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash to the fact that they didn’t say a brachah before learning. The Ran interprets this to mean that they didn’t sufficiently appreciate Torah study. The Steipler’s shmuessen often touched on this idea, and although he didn’t emote much, we were as inspired as if he cried.”
Mussar in Novardok
Next, I ask him about the legendary mussar sedarim in Novardok. “We had a 15-minute seder before Minchah and another 15 minutes before Maariv. Then after Maariv we would have a mussar vaad that lasted an hour and a half.”
I once heard that Rav Dovid Sharshever pointed to Rav Lazewnik during one such mussar vaad and told him, “Du bist a diamant tzuvishen zamd—You are a diamond hidden among the grains of sand.” When I ask him what he meant by that, he tells me that at the time he really didn’t know, because he had always felt that the other bachurim were more chashuv than he was. In retrospect, however, “I think he must have had ruach hakodesh, because they all perished during the Holocaust and I was the only one who survived.” The Rav is so dismissive of himself that he sees this as the only logical explanation.
Rav Lazewnik explains that during a mussar vaad an older bachur would speak to a younger one about avodas Hashem, tikkun hamiddos and other similar topics.
“Rav Kalman Pinsky, who later married the daughter of Rav Elya Lopian, was an older bachur who took me under his wing and helped me grow immensely,” he says. “Rav Kalman was a real lo pasak girsa mipumei, never looking up from his gemara. He just sat and learned all day.”
Novardok had two batei midrash. One was the regular study hall, and the other was known as the beis hamussar, which was mostly used by the balebatim of the city. Some were only there bein hasedarim, but the ovdim spent many hours of the day in there. Some bachurim who didn’t enjoy or weren’t as strong in learning Gemara tried to focus on tikkun hamiddos and avodas Hashem.
“Although the learning in the yeshivah was on a very high level, it revolved around mussar, in line with the Alter’s approach. Rav Moshe Ostropoler, who was an older bachur, became the yeshivah’s menahel and headed the beis hamussar. He delivered powerful shmuessen focusing on the struggle against human nature, taavos olam hazeh and the necessity to eschew kavod. He was very pious, and I learned a lot from him.”
“How does the Rav compare today’s mussar to Novardok?”
“It’s laughable. Learning 15 minutes a day without actually working on one’s middos may qualify as Torah study, but mussar it is not. Everybody is chasing honor today. There’s no such thing as really working on middos,” Rav Grainom states emphatically. “The bread we got in the yeshivah was usually pretty stale, but for some bachurim it was still too much ‘olam hazeh.’ Dovid Sharshever used to crumble the bread so that he wouldn’t eat it with such a taavah.”
It is obvious that the sinas hakavod that was instilled in him at a very young age is still very strong all these years later.
Rav Aharon Walkin
Not everyone in Rav Lazewnik’s orbit agreed with his intense devotion to mussar.
“My father wasn’t thrilled by the amount of time I was spending learning mussar. He wanted me to focus more on Gemara and mefarshim. He once said, ‘I’m going to travel to the Chofetz Chaim and have him force you to go to Baranovich or Kletzk.’ These yeshivos weren’t part of the Novardok network and had a different attitude towards mussar.
“One time before Pesach, my father came to Pinsk to ask the Beis Aharon, Rav Aharon Walkin, to accompany him back to Lenin to adjudicate a dispute as to who should be the city’s rav. Since it was close to Yom Tov, I accompanied Rav Aharon and my father on the train ride. People from Lenin were boarding at every stop, and whenever they came over to greet the Rav he would ask them who the rav of Lenin should be. By the end of the journey he casually mentioned that he was ready to pasken. I think it had to do with what the vast majority of the town’s people had told him, because we were learning Kesubos at the time and he asked me about the sugyos of rov, majority, some of which we hadn’t gotten to yet.
“On the way to Lenin, we stayed overnight in Luzhenitz, where I had the zechus to share a room with him. Rav Walkin gave me the bed while he stayed up all night writing chiddushei Torah. Once in Lenin, Rav Aharon stayed in our house until after he published his ruling. When it was time for him to depart, the townspeople gathered to catch a glimpse of this gadol. Some people even brought along their babies. I was on the outer ring of the crowd, but Rav Aharon somehow spotted me among the throngs of people and gestured for me to approach him. The crowd parted to make a path. Upon reaching him, Rav Aharon kissed my forehead and said, ‘Mussar iz a kompot, like dessert. A little bit after a meal is good for you.’ Rav Aharon was known to disagree with the Alter’s mehalech. I’m not sure if he said this of his own accord or at my father’s behest.”
First Encounter with Rav Yisrael Yaakov Lubchansky
Rav Lazewnik’s father wouldn’t give up on his son leaving Novardok. After Pesach, he insisted that Rav Grainom travel to Baranovitch to enroll in Rav Elchonon Wasserman’s yeshivah. “When I got to Baranovitch, Rav Elchanan was in America to raise funds, and I was never able to meet him in person. But I was zocheh to make the acquaintance of the mashgiach, Rav Yisrael Yaakov Lubchansky, the son-in-law of the Alter of Novardok. During our conversation, he said somewhat cryptically that over the 22 years he had been serving as mashgiach, ‘not one bachur had left to go to Novardok.’ I took this to mean that if I didn’t return to Pinsk right away, I would never again have the chance to learn in the mussar-oriented yeshivos of Novardok. Of course, it is entirely possible that he meant they never regretted their choice to focus more on Gemara instead. My interpretation was probably influenced by the fact that the bachurim in Novardok derided anyone who decided to leave. When Rav Shaul Brus, the future rosh yeshivah of Beis Hatalmud in Bensonhurst, left Pinsk, the bachurim said that he’d lost his mind. With those thoughts in mind, I returned to Pinsk after a week in Baranovich.”
Novardok in Mezritch
Rav Lazewnik learned in Pinsk for two and a half years and then transferred to the Novardok yeshivah in Mezritch, headed by Rav Dovid Bleicher. “Rav Shmuel Weintraub, the rosh yeshivah in Pinsk, had accepted an offer to simultaneously serve as the rav of nearby Karlin. He had done this so that the extra income would help the yeshivah, which was in dire financial straits. A childhood friend who came to Pinsk with me left after a short few months because the poverty was too much for him. He couldn’t handle the lack of basic necessities. We didn’t have much more than bread. But to many of the bachurim in the yeshivah, physical things weren’t important. That’s why some of the bigger baalei mussar were strongly opposed to Rav Weintraub’s move, including Rav Dovid Bleicher, the rosh yeshivah in Mezritch. They felt that the mesorah of the Alter was to focus solely on harbatzas haTorah, and that rabbanus could interfere with this mission. They also thought that a rabbinical position was associated with too many honorifics, which any true Novardoker wouldn’t want to accept.”
Rav Grainom emphasizes that Rav Shmuel Weintraub chose to become the Rav of Karlin solely to alleviate the yeshivah’s financial burden, and the disagreement was an intellectual one.
“Because of that, some talmidim decided to protest. They left Novardok-Pinsk to Novardok-Mezritch and schlepped me along. I wasn’t among those objecting to Rav Weintraub’s decision; I was simply asked to join them in Mezritch. The difference in opinion was also evident in the way the two yeshivos were run. In Pinsk, the primary focus was on learning Gemara. Mezritch was much more mussar-oriented, which I enjoyed. You could spend the whole day in the beis hamussar and no one would object.”
Suddenly, Rav Grainom makes a surprising confession. “I don’t mean to denigrate the yeshivos or the people who learned there, chas v’shalom. But in retrospect, I feel that my own preoccupation with mussar stemmed from the fact that it’s much easier to study mussar than to toil over a gemara for hours on end until you achieve clarity. That may have been the message that Rav Aharon Walkin was trying to convey to me, but I was too immature to understand it.”
Rav Grainom’s humility is astounding, as he is known as a tremendous talmid chacham. Whenever someone needs a source in Shas, poskim or Navi and Midrash, Rav Lazewnik is the person to go to, having all of them at his fingertips. Before speaking to Rav Lazewnik, I reached out to a lot of people who had spent their summers in Deelee’s Bungalow Colony together with him. They all told me that Rav Grainom’s face was always buried in a sefer. One year, a new bungalow colony opened up across the road and a few people went to check it out. “It’s fancier, but it doesn’t have the same chein as Deelee’s,” someone told Rav Lazewnik. “What’s Deelee’s?” Rav Lazewnik asked. Although Rav Grainom had gone to the same bungalow colony for years on end, he didn’t know or care what its name was. To him, it was just another place to sit and learn.
When Rav Gedalya Zhviller got married, the yeshivah sent Rav Grainom and a group of other bachurim to help Rav Gedalya establish a yeshivah in Bilgoray. “The new yeshivah was a success and soon had over 100 bachurim,” he tells me. “One Shabbos I went to the tish of the Bilgorayer Rebbe, the father of the current Belzer Rebbe. When it came to shirayim, instead of placing it in my hand, as he did with everyone else, the Rebbe asked for a fork and then handed it to me. When the chasidim gave him a quizzical look he said, ‘Laasos kirtzon ish va’ish, you should do for each man as is his want.’ It was very moving to see the Rebbe concerning himself with my needs, without me even hinting that I wouldn’t be comfortable receiving the food from his hand.”
Serving in the Polish Army
Rav Lazewnik continues his story, relating the miracles and dreams that foreshadowed the future. Coming from a baal mussar, I am caught off guard.
“In 1935, I passed up an opportunity to get a visa to immigrate to the United States. I told my parents, ‘America is for businessmen. I want to stay in yeshivah.’ I thought of America as a spiritual wasteland and didn’t want to move there.” That decision had serious consequences, because for the next ten years Rav Grainom’s life was filled with trials and tribulations.
At the time, Poland had a universal draft for anyone legally in the country, although most bachurim found a way around it. They either bribed a doctor, traveled to Eretz Yisrael, or moved to an independent country like Lithuania or Latvia.
“One of the older bachurim in Novardok had never registered for the draft, and when he was caught they treated him like a deserter, and he ended up serving anyway,” he tells me. “Upon his return, Rav Dovid Bleicher realized that the bachur hadn’t been damaged either physically or spiritually by his service, and he changed the yeshivah’s policy with regard to conscription. Rav Dovid had always felt that the yeshivah was endangered by bachurim constantly leaving. Only the younger boys would remain, which made it difficult for them to fulfill their potential. Rav Dovid also felt that serving was a zikuy harabbim, and that serving amongst gentiles could lead to significant spiritual growth. In any event, in 1937 I was conscripted into the Polish army.”
Again, Rav Grainom pokes fun at his stature. “When the doctor checked my health for the draft panel I was okayed, even though I weighed less than 50 kilograms. Everyone looked at him rather suspiciously, because he had previously exempted much bigger and stronger yeshivah bachurim. But he had probably accepted too many bribes by then, so I guess that’s why he passed a short and scrawny guy like me.”
Rav Lazewnik wasn’t the only observant Jew in the army. Three bachurim from the Radin yeshivah were there with him, and together they kept Torah and mitzvos. “Most training exercises weren’t held on Shabbos. The only thing we had to do was clean our rifles, which didn’t take long. A superior once asked me to bring him some matches because he wanted to smoke, so I asked a non-Jew to get them for him. The officer wasn’t happy, but after I explained why I had done it, he was pleased that I’d acted the way I did. We didn’t have any sefarim and had a hard time learning, but one of the Radin bachurim was a big talmid chacham, having received smichah in Yoreh Dei’ah, and he had a great memory. So we learned a lot of halachos pertaining to those inyanim.”
Rav Grainom mentions his adherence to Shabbos as self-understood, but keeping Shabbos in defiance of an officer’s command surely carried great risk. Nonetheless, in his humble manner, he dismisses the notion that he deserves recognition for his mesiras nefesh.
Ger and the
“Our camp was close to Vladeslavic, near Lublin, which had a large population of Gerrer chasidim. We received our kosher food from them at lunchtime. For other meals, we made do with bread from the army. I had some butter that my family had sent that was mixed with cocoa in order to preserve it, so it lasted for a while. There were two Gerrer shtieblech, one of which was frequented by the young and pious who strove to improve their avodas Hashem and learned a lot of chasidus. It was not dissimilar to mussar. There, I became friendly with the son of a Gerrer chasid, and his family because our quasi-hosts.”
After 14 months in the army, Rav Grainom was invited to spend a Shabbos in this family’s home two weeks before Rosh Hashanah of 5698 . “Because Selichos started on Motzaei Shabbos, Rav Avraham Mordechai Alter, the Imrei Emes, started seeing visitors on Friday. I had a hard time understanding what the Rebbe told me because of his accent, but the gabbai explained it to me: ‘Protect your identity and remain a Yid.’ While this sounded like simple advice, it was of vital importance to me later in the war. I saw how far-reaching his vision was and how essential was his brachah. I was confronted by tremendous nisyonos, and I saw so many others who didn’t maintain their Yiddishkeit. Only then did I recognize the Rebbe’s prophetic wisdom.
“The davening on Shabbos was packed, and most people stood for the whole thing. I don’t even remember if there was any place to sit. And the nusach of the Selichos was so foreign to me, as well as the style, that I couldn’t daven along with the oilam, so I said whatever I remembered from Novardok by heart.”
“After Shabbos, I spent a few days in Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. Rav Meir Shapiro had passed away a few years earlier, and the rosh yeshivah was Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frumer, the Kozhiglover Rav, who was the mechaber of Eretz Tzvi. My host’s son was a talmid there and desperately wanted me to join him. I couldn’t believe what I saw when I got there. They had a beautiful building with a spacious beis midrash and magnificent gardens in which the bachurim could take a stroll, talking and thinking in learning. They also had a model of the Beis Hamikdash that took up an entire room. It was quite a contrast to Novardok. Breakfast in Chachmei Lublin consisted of hot food, fresh bread, butter, eggs, cereal and hot cocoa. The bachurim in Lublin also treated me very kindly, as if I were part of the yeshivah. While these things were enticing to me, Novardok had reinkeit, a penimiyus that pulled me back to Mezritch. The aura of yiras shamayim that permeated throughout Novardok was unmatched.”
A Second Stint in the Army
“A few weeks before the outbreak of WWII,” he continues, “the yeshivah was sent a second draft notice for me. To keep me from worrying, my friends concealed this from me. Then one day Rav Dovid Bleicher asked me to accompany him on several errands he had to take care of. He brought me to a family with a sick child and told me to bentch him with a speedy recovery because I’m a kohen. This was very unusual, because he was playing on my ego, which was against everything Novardok represented. That night we learned until well past midnight, and when we were done I fell asleep on the couch. A short time later I suddenly woke up with the words from Tehillim in my head, ‘la’eved nimkar Yosef—Yosef was sold into slavery.’”
(Rav Lazewnik then tells me that since it was still too early he went back to sleep, and right before waking up for Shacharis he dreamed about the next pasuk in Tehillim, which was fulfilled at the end of the war.)
“After Minchah, Rav Dovid beckoned me over and handed me my draft notice. When I read that I was being called up for border patrol, which was actually a clandestine mobilization in anticipation of the impending German aggression, I was stunned and exclaimed, ‘That’s what I dreamed about!’ When I told my dreams to Rav Dovid he was also speechless.”
Rav Grainom was to report to Snov, near Baranovich. He chose to get off the train in Baranovich to visit Rav Yisrael Yaakov Lubchansky. “Although I had last seen him seven years earlier, I was hoping that he would remember who I was. He seemed to recognize me, gave me a warm welcome, and it felt as if he expected me. After telling him where I was headed, he wished me well and asked me to deliver a letter to someone in Snov. When I arrived, I sought out the town’s rav and handed him an introductory letter the yeshivah had given me. The rav grimaced and his face expressed worry. ‘Vi azoi kennen mir farshaffen essen far der bachur—how will we be able to arrange food for him?’ he asked his son, explaining that the looming threat of war had left his town with only a minimal amount for themselves. I felt terrible for putting him in such a quandary and handed him the letter from Rav Yisrael Yaakov, which was actually intended for someone named Yaakov Milner. It read, ‘Don’t worry. Everything will work out.’”
Rav Lazewnik explains that Yaakov Milner owned the town mill and was a great admirer of Rav Lubchansky’s. He therefore generously supplied him with all of his necessities during his time at the border.
Rav Lazewnik then relates another way Hashem intervened for him.
“The sergeant took a liking to me and had me run errands for him, calling me his ‘little Zhidik.’ My short stature also helped me avoid being sent to the frontlines. At rollcall they would line us up according to height and send off the taller ones first. Baruch Hashem, I was never sent. I also advised the other Jews to go to the end of the line regardless of their height. The Germans overran the front and slaughtered all the Polish soldiers. Yad Hashem was visible at every turn.”
Prisoner of War
A few weeks later the Russians captured the area, and Rav Lazewnik and one other Jew were taken as prisoners of war.
“We had to march for 45 miles on foot to the city of Novardok, where we slept. In the morning, we were taken further eastward towards Russia. On Erev Yom Kippur, we reached Mir and camped in an empty theater. While walking through the streets, a fellow talmid of the Pinsk yeshivah recognized me, and later that evening, the night of Yom Kippur, he and a few friends bribed a guard with vodka to allow them in. But they couldn’t find me because I had found a quiet place to daven.”
When Rav Grainom heard about this attempted rescue attempt years later, he wondered why they hadn’t just called out his name to find him. “But apparently, Hashem meant for me to go through my tribulations,” he says in his straightforward manner. Had he been rescued, he would have been able to join the Mir when they escaped to Shanghai. When Rav Lazewnik’s son once asked him why he learns so diligently, he replied, “I have to make up for the amount of Torah I could have learned with the Mir.”
A Second Dream Comes True
Since the town of Lenin was under Russian control, Rav Lazewnik was allowed to return home. “I started learning with our rav, Rav Moshe Milstein. A few weeks later I had a dream that I was standing in my father’s place at the bimah during leining, and he got the aliyah of Akeidas Yitzchak. I mentioned this to Rav Milstein, who thought about it and suggested that my brother not try to travel to Vilna, because another boy had been captured trying to cross the border and was sent to Siberia.”
Rav Grainom’s younger brother, Avraham Koppel, was a talmid of Rav Elazar Menachem Shach, who later became the illustrious rosh yeshivah of Ponevezh. When Rav Lazewnik shared his dream with his family, his brother chose to take the chance anyway. “Avraham Koppel made it to Vilna. Later that year, 1940, I snuck over the border and brought him money to buy a ticket through Kovno to Kobe, Japan, where he would hopefully obtain a visa to the United States. But my brother couldn’t bear the thought of leaving his rebbeim and chaveirim, and he stayed with his yeshivah.”
Rav Grainom is somber as he tells me this story, because his brother’s choice ultimately led to death. “When the Russians came searching for Jews my brother was able to hide, but his friends were taken to Siberia. He remained near Vilna, where he was later murdered by the Nazis, yimach shemam. I believe that this was the unfortunate fulfillment of my dream about the Akeidah.”
Rav Lazewnik still has a card from the Vaad Hatzalah stating that his brother had relatives in New York and there was sufficient financial aid to satisfy the requirements for a visa.
Living Under Communist Occupation
“Living under Russian control was a nightmare. Many of the locals were informants, and every move had to be calculated to avoid unnecessary attention. I was learning with Rav Milstein every day from six a.m. until late in the afternoon, and I had to be careful about when I left the house, because the Communists expected everyone to be working. Whenever I needed a doctor I traveled to Pinsk, where I wasn’t known, in order to avoid further scrutiny.”
Rav Chaim Walkin, Rav Aharon’s grandson, recently paid a visit to Rav Grainom to discuss the interactions that Rav Lazewnik had with his grandfather. Rav Aharon Walkin had long been thought to have been murdered by the Nazis, but Rav Grainom disputes that belief. “One day I was supposed to be learning with Rav Milstein,” he says, “but then he walked in and said, ‘The Pinsker Rav [Rav Aharon Walkin] just passed away and I have to prepare a hesped.’ This was while we were under Communist rule, so he couldn’t have been killed by the Nazis.”
At the time, the borders between the German- and Russian-controlled areas weren’t closed because the two countries were not yet at war with each other. So Rav Lazewnik traveled through Brisk, sneaking across the River Bug to Slavititza, which was under German control, and brought his sister and her two toddlers back to Lenin. “My brother-in-law, Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Koziollek, chose to remain with his yeshivah until he reached Vilna, where he was planning to send for his wife and children. Then one day a local approached me and mentioned my sister’s plight. ‘Oh, don’t worry,’ I said, trying to remain positive. ‘She and her husband will soon be reunited because these borders aren’t permanent.’ Unbeknownst to me, these words could have had grave consequences. A few days later, I received a visit from the chief intelligence officer of the NKVD, who told me that the Russians would be retreating in a few days, but he reassured me that they would come back soon afterward. ‘I hope so, because otherwise [the Germans] will slaughter us all,’ I replied. He seemed satisfied and left. It dawned on me that someone had reported me, and the officer came to ascertain if I was indifferent to the Russians’ struggle to secure the border.”
Again, Rav Grainom attributes his choice of words to Yad Hashem and refuses to take credit for staying calm and finding the right words himself.
The Rav is well known for avoiding any recognition. In the past, when it was easier for him to walk, he would leave the shul when there was no other kohen present so that someone else could receive an aliyah. During my visit, a Yid came with his two sons and asked for a brachah for hatzlachah in learning. “Say birkas haTorah and Ahavah Rabbah with kavanah. And of course, they must also learn as well,” he replied. When the father asked if his sons could take a picture with him, Rav Grainom waved him off and said, “What do you need a picture of me for?” It was only when the man explained that it would strengthen his sons’ cheishek to learn that he relented.
Under German Rule
After the Russians retreated, Lenin fell under German control. “Rav Milstein was informed that the Nazis had exterminated all of the Jews in Pinsk. During one of our learning sessions, I was shocked when I saw him without a beard. It had been shaved off by two Nazis who enjoyed tormenting our town just for fun. One of them once stormed into our house in the middle of the night and ordered us to sing, but everyone was frozen in fear and couldn’t produce a sound. I was worried that they would get mad, so I started singing the first thing that came to mind, ‘Shiru lo zamru lo sichu b’chol nifle’osav.’ This was an appropriate song because Hashem’s name isn’t mentioned and we weren’t fully dressed nor had we washed our hands,” he says, refusing to take credit for his quick thinking. He does so again when he mentions that he was once asked at gunpoint which people in town had a gun or ammunition. He calmly responded, “The Russians made us hand everything over before they left.” The two Nazis were eventually killed by their own because they weren’t reserving their cruelty solely for Jews. The Germans needed the cooperation of the locals, and bothering the non-Jews would anger them.
After the Nazis starting rounding up the able-bodied Jews to work in a labor camp, Rav Grainom got an exemption from the Judenrat, based on Rav Milstein’s request. But he too was eventually shipped off, when one of the others there fell ill and dismissed his father’s offer to trade places. “‘Who’s to say that staying in the city is safer?’ I told my father.” After the other man recovered, the Judenrat told Rav Milstein that they had been able to obtain Rav Grainom’s release, and he would be returning to Lenin shortly.
He also explains that although it was known that the Nazis despised the Jews and subjected them to all kinds of horrors, the extent of their atrocities and the Final Solution were beyond anything they could imagine. “Life in Lenin went on with relative normalcy, so I was excited to go home. When my replacement returned to camp, a rumor went around that the Germans had prepared a grave for one of us. Some time later, a soldier came looking for ‘a man named Lesebik, who isn’t fit for work.’ Someone in the group stepped forward and proclaimed, ‘There is no Jew by that name in this camp.’ He then assured the Germans that all of the laborers were physically healthy and could do any work. Up until then I was working in the kitchen, which allowed me to keep Shabbos. But after that close call I decided to do more physically demanding work to prove that I was healthy. Thanks to the Ribbono Shel Olam’s kindness, the Germans never asked for me again.”
Rav Lazewnik was in the labor camp from early May until late August of 1942. There were numerous times when the Jewish laborers planned to escape but refrained from following through because the Nazis threatened retribution against the families of escapees. “I have great hakaras hatov to the Jewish refugees from Warsaw, who despite not having any relatives in the area, were considerate of our fears and didn’t attempt to break out.
“One of the plans was formulated by Yerachmiel Dvorin, one of my neighbors from Lenin, who knew a lot of peasants in the area from his business dealings. He was sure that they would protect him and guide him to safety. I was going to join his group if they attempted to escape, but then I had a dream that changed my mind. I dreamed that I was in the forest on a Friday night and a Jewish family was about to begin their meal. In the dream, I felt that Yerachmiel’s personality didn’t go well with this family’s, so I decided not to join him, and neither did my brother Moshe.
“On Friday afternoon, the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul [August 14, 1942], a Nazi brought his car in for servicing and bragged, ‘Lenin ist kaput.’ He then described the atrocities that had been committed and boasted about the efficiency of the killings. ‘Lenin ist Judenrein,’ he said. The news spread like wildfire throughout the camp, and the escape plans became real. The breakout began just as I placed my tefillin in my pocket. Over 350 prisoners escaped into the nearby forest. My brother tried to direct me to a nearby shack, but I thought it wasn’t safe and pulled him into the woods. Yerachmiel Dvorin and his group tried to hide out near the camp, but the Nazis found them and slaughtered every single one of them. Again, Yad Hashem was evident, and another one of my dreams saved me.
“By the morning, we realized there were about 50 of us and decided to splinter into smaller groups. This would make us less conspicuous while traveling and also increase the likelihood that a group of partisans would allow us to join their ranks.
“One day our little group was walking along the side of the road when a high-ranking partisan pulled up, got off his horse, unslung the automatic rifle from his chest and yelled, ‘Run into the forest!’ Most of us sped off into the woods, but I saw the man’s body trembling with rage and started muttering the name ‘Gavriel’ seven times. It was a segulah I had learned in my youth, from a sefer on segulos I’d picked up in shul during summer vacation. The only one I can recall to this day is to say the name of the Malach Gavriel seven times when encountering a murderer.
The partisan noticed me mumbling and asked me what I was saying. ‘We have no possessions,’ I told him. ‘Well, get out of here, and don’t let me ever set eyes on any of you again,’ he threatened. This segulah was also something I had never thought about prior to that moment. The Ribbono Shel Olam sent the right words to say.”
Joining the Partisans
In November of 1942, a few weeks after Sukkos, the small group found themselves at the entrance to a major partisan camp. Approaching it carried a significant risk because they could have been accused of spying, but Rav Lazewnik, quoting the pasuk in Tehillim (138:7), “Im eilech b’kerev tzarah techayeini—If I walk in the midst of trouble, You revive me,” explains, “We had no choice but to do it. At first the commander said that they already had a few Jews who did administrative work and asked if we had any skills. ‘I am an expert photographer and can document your heroism for future generations,’ my brother told him. The commander accepted his offer, but my brother’s pleas for him to allow me to join him fell on deaf ears. Then Hashem suddenly sent a thought to my mind. ‘I fought in the Polish Army. I can join the saboteurs,’ I piped up.”
(Saboteurs were resistance fighters who went behind enemy lines and sabotaged roads and train tracks to disrupt the supply chains. It was very dangerous work.)
“The commander ordered me to follow him into a room. Laid out on a table were several German weapons. ‘Do you know how to use this?’ he asked as he handed me one. I inspected the rifle, and after ensuring that there weren’t any bullets in the chamber, I pointed it in the air and pulled the trigger. I was also able to answer his questions about how to sharpshoot from a 1,000-foot distance, and he accepted me into their ranks.”
Rav Grainom once published a booklet called Pirsumei Nisa in which he chronicles some of his adventures and also mentions a book written by a fellow partisan named Mordechai Zaitchik. Of all the Jewish partisans, Zaitchik wrote, only Rav Lazewnik refused to accept assignments on Shabbos, and he stayed strong despite the partisans’ threats and insults. In fact, he writes how amazed he was that Rav Grainom wasn’t killed for his refusal.
Having also heard stories about the lengths to which Rav Lazewnik went to avoid chillul Shabbos, I ask him to tell me about it. “Ich red vegen pirsumei nisa, nisht vegen zich—I only talk about the miracles Hashem did for me, not about myself,” he answers modestly.
However, he does mention that he was thrilled when his brother found an abandoned German parachute made out of cotton and had a tailor fashion it into a suit for him because he knew it wouldn’t have any problems with shaatnez. “During our missions, there was danger from the Germans but also from within our ranks because some of the partisans were spies. One time the commander called out a fellow partisan for positioning himself awkwardly during an operation. I realized later that he had probably tried to shoot some of us from behind, figuring that he could blame it on the Germans. Every day was another miracle.” Comparing it to the Gemara in Bava Metzia (84a) he says, “The leader recognized what he was doing because one thief recognizes another.”
Rav Lazewnik was with the partisans for almost two years, until the summer of 1944. Shortly before Pesach, he was ordered to abandon his rifle and watch over a herd of cows that were hidden not too far away from the camp. The cows were there to ensure a supply of food for the partisans in case their other sources dried up. “It was tremendous hashgachah pratis, because I was not only able to rest and regain my strength but also avoid eating chametz. Every morning I drank a quart of milk. I was there for only two weeks, coinciding perfectly with Pesach.”
After Rav Lazewnik’s return, the camp was on high alert because the Germans were retreating and attacking any partisan camps they encountered. “On the day we were expecting them to attack, June 6, the entire area was suddenly evacuated. While many remember D-Day as the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany, for us it was a direct lifesaver. Had the invasion happened even a few hours later, I doubt we would be having this conversation.”
In the Russian Army
After the Germans retreated, Rav Grainom was dispatched to serve in the Russian Army. “I was in the midst of training when a fellow Jew mentioned that the Russians were looking for volunteers to become officers. He was hesitant because he thought it would be harder to receive a visa to a foreign land after the war, but I realized that if we were officers it would take longer for us to be sent to the front. That first day we were given live ammunition and ordered to guard a house in the woods, while those who weren’t becoming officers were sent into battle. Only two of those sent to the front survived. Again, Hashem showed me His grace. Had I not been informed of the officer training program, I would have also been killed at the front.
“We were worked to the bone and I was exhausted,” he continues, “but I kept telling myself that I should utilize every spare second for learning rather than sleeping.” Clearly, the Novardok mindset was present even under the most difficult of circumstances.
“When Yom Kippur arrived I wanted to fast, but I knew that I would collapse if I worked. So on Yom Kippur morning I stayed on my pile of straw and told the commander that I couldn’t get up. When nobody was looking, I davened what I remembered by heart and learned mishnayos, but most of the day I slept. When the others came back from work one of them snarled, ‘Look at this lazy Jew who managed to skip work today.’ Fortunately, the guard jumped to my defense and said, ‘Look at him—he’s so weak that he didn’t even touch his food.’”
In January of 1945 Rav Lazewnik was finally sent to the front lines. “We sat in our trenches, enduring the nonstop shelling by the German artillery. By dawn we’d advanced on the German position. While walking, however, I stepped on an explosive that blew off half my toe, thus fulfilling the second dream I’d had the night before being drafted into the Polish Army. I’d dreamed of the pasuk in Tehillim (105:18), ‘Inu vakevel raglo barzel baah nafsho—They afflicted his foot with fetters; his soul was placed in irons.’ My toe was shredded by hot iron. My two dreams that night signified the beginning and the end of my service in the military respectively.”
A couple of years ago, Rav Grainom broke his hip and said that it was the most pain he’d ever experienced. When his grandson challenged that assertion and asked about all the wounds he’d suffered during the war, he replied, “In those days we expected pain and were conditioned for it. But now I’ve grown accustomed to the comforts of America.”
According to his fellow Jewish partisans, Rav Lazewnik kept track of the calendar and knew when the Yomim Tovim occurred. His primary focus, then and now, has always been Yiddishkeit. During his years on the run, Rav Grainom kept a pair of tefillin on him all the time, but he lost it when the hospital removed his clothing when they had to repair his toe. Throughout that time, he only put on tefillin shel yad. “If they caught me with tefillin the communists would have shot me on the spot, so I had to restrain myself and not don tefillin shel rosh,” he says. Of course, risking one’s life for tefillin shel yad is an incredibly brave feat, for which he also refuses to take credit.
The army sent Rav Lazewnik for medical treatment to Opah, 900 miles east of Moscow. During the surgery, which was done without anesthesia, he begged the doctor not to amputate the toe, and to the doctor’s surprise it healed on its own. But because it took a while for him to recover, it ended up crooked.
“After the Germans capitulated, I begged the Ribbono Shel Olam to be discharged because I felt my resolve slipping. I wasn’t around any other Torah Jews and I was lonely. I asked my doctor if I could be transferred to Minsk, which wasn’t far from my hometown. For some reason he agreed, provided that the local hospital would admit me because I was still injured. Believing my brother Moshe to be in Minsk, since the partisans had chosen it as their headquarters, I wrote him a letter, addressing it simply as ‘Moshe Lazewnik, Minsk.’ Two weeks later I was in shock when not only did the letter I requested arrive, but it was accompanied by 500 rubles. Had I remained another week or so under my doctor’s care he would have released me from the hospital in Opah, and I would have never been allowed to go to Belarus.
“On my way home, I stopped in Moscow and met Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, who gave me new clothing. Then I continued on to Minsk, where I met my brother, and then we headed to Pinsk. Not a single Jew who had lived there before the war was left. On the streets there were piles of sefarim, among them Rav Aharon Walkin’s sefer on Gittin that was printed but never distributed.”
It was all too much for Rav Grainom to bear, and although a minyan of refugees had formed, he decided to travel to Lodz, where there was a yeshivah and a beis din. “I stayed there until after Sukkos of 1945, but I was fearful that I wouldn’t be able to leave Communist Poland if I stayed, so I went to Landsberg, Germany, where a few Jewish organizations were helping people leave Europe.”
Rav Gershon Liebman
“Once I arrived in Landsberg, I was asked by a Hungarian rav to deliver a shiur to some young refugees who were stranded there. In the meantime, Rav Gershon Liebman, part of the Novardok leadership in Bialystok, had opened a yeshivah in Bergen-Belsen after its liberation. Rav Gershon had remained with ten talmidim and sent me an invitation to join him there. One time Rav Gershon told me that Rav Yitzchak Isaac Herzog and a group of rabbanim were coming to visit the yeshivah, and he instructed me to greet them when they arrived. I did as he said, but when I sent one of the bachurim to find Rav Leibman he had disappeared. He didn’t want to accept any kavod these chashuve rabbanim would have shown him, so he avoided them altogether. That’s what an adam gadol he was.
“Later, Rav Gershon sent me to Frankfurt to open a yeshivah with his talmidim while he remained near Bergen-Belsen. His first wife had been killed in the war and he was getting married again. Of course, we came from Frankfurt for the wedding and sheva brachos. After sheva brachos he went to a local shul, opened a Chovos Halevavos and repeated the same four words the entire night. I stayed there learning and fell asleep at about three a.m. When I awoke for Shacharis, Rav Gershon was still going. He was a true gadol baTorah and was never fully appreciated.”
Rav Grainom hands me a leaflet containing a hesped he once wrote about Rav Gershon Liebman, who was instrumental in saving Torah Jewry in France. He opened many mosdos throughout the country.
In 1946 Rav Lazewnik applied for a visa. When he went to fill out the form, the secretary asked him in which country he had been born. “‘Before the war Lenin was a part of Poland, but now it’s Belarus,’ I told her. Again the Ribbono Shel Olam showed me great kindness and she put down Belarus. Had she written Poland I wouldn’t have gotten a visa, because the Polish quota was full, but the Russian one wasn’t. I was given a letter from the Vaad Hatzalah, through Rav Avraham Yoffen, stating that a rabbinical position was available for me in New Haven, Connecticut. But I never intended to go there, and upon arriving in Brooklyn I joined Rav Yoffen’s yeshivah in Boro Park. It was named Beis Yosef Novardok, and these days it is located in Flatbush.”
Rav Lazewnik received smichah from Rav Yoffen and looks uncomfortable when I ask if the bechinah was hard. “Rav Avraham wrote ‘Yoreh Yoreh, Yadin Yadin,’” is all he is willing to say.
Rav Yaakov Yoffen, Rav Avraham’s brother, suggested Rivka Green as a shidduch for Rav Lazewnik, and they were married in 1947. Rebbetzin Lazewnik, whose brother Rav Refoel Green is a popular rebbe in the Yeshiva of Staten Island, and whose other brother Rav Moshe is the rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva D’Monsey, passed away only a few months ago after a prolonged battle with several illnesses. “She was moser nefesh so that I could continue learning. She made sure that the shul was clean, unlocking the doors in the morning and locking them late at night.”
Rav Grainom used to have a kvius with Rav Leibel Birnbaum at 3:30 a.m. During the day visitors could be buzzed in, but at night the deadbolt had to be unlocked. “My wife used to go downstairs to unlock the door and then make sure that I was up before going back to sleep. She took care of everything. I didn’t have to boil a pot of water from the moment I got married.”
After leaving Beis Yosef, Rav Grainom first said a shiur in Yeshivas Heichal Hatorah and later joined the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway. Eventually, he taught in the Chabad mesivta at Bedford and Dean.
“I was davening in a Young Israel in East New York. By then there had been several rabbanim who had either left or passed away. Rav Pam davened in that shul, but he refused to assume the role of rav. Eventually, I became its rav until I opened my own shul. The first 50 years of my life were much more eventful than my second 50,” he tells me with a smile.
I doubt that I will have many opportunities to speak to someone like Rav Grainom, and I ask him to reflect on some of the differences between today and yesteryear.
“First of all, there was such a level of poverty that people today cannot comprehend it. I was lucky to have bread. Many people were starving, but there was no one to turn to for help because everyone else was in the same boat. But baruch Hashem, achshar dara, today’s generation is much better in many respects. Even with all the shtieblach and Rebbes, the percentage of shomrei Shabbos was much lower then than it is today. Many young people left Yiddishkeit completely, some because of communism and others for many other reasons. Still, they only married Jews. While for many it was out of conviction, others didn’t intermarry because the Poles would never deign to marry a Jew. Intermarriage was a much bigger nisayon here in America. There are also many more bnei Torah these days. The school system is set up so well that you won’t find total ignoramuses anymore. Almost everybody knows how to read.
“However, the maaleh of an amoliker Yid is that those who were frum had much deeper convictions than people of today. Nowadays, people lack for nothing so it’s easy to be a maamin. In the old days, people kept Shabbos and kashrus under much more complicated and tenuous circumstances.”
“How does chinuch differ?” I ask Rav Grainom. His answer catches me off guard, “It isn’t really different. Of course, the challenges aren’t the same, but the ikar remains unchanged. A child has to feel that he has a father. The relationship has to be so close that he will soak up all the values you instill in him and adhere to them.”
In closing, I want to know why the Rav thinks he was zocheh to arichas yamim. Rav Grainom thinks for a minute and says, “Throughout all the years that I was in the army, a prisoner, or with the partisans I survived on bread and water. I never ate something that wasn’t kosher.”
“So you feel that being omeid b’nisayon is the Rav’s zechus?” I say.
The Rav catches himself and tries to deflect my statement. “It wasn’t a nisayon,” he insists. “I just stayed away from the dining halls so I was never tempted.”
Realizing that he has already spent a considerable amount of time talking to me, he says kindly but forcefully, “If you have any more questions you can call me, but right now I have to learn.”
I thank Rav Lazewnik for his time and depart. When I told my father about our conversation, he informed me that he knew Rav Gershon Liebman, because he used to stay by my grandparents when he would travel to Zurich to collect money for his mosdos. When I excitedly called Rav Grainom to tell him some of the stories my father told me about him, he replied, “If you already know about his gadlus then you don’t need to hear about him from me.”
This single line encapsulates Rav Lazewnik perfectly. For a true talmid of the Novardok mussar yeshivos, it’s never about him and his experiences. Rav Grainom only wants to be mefarseim the nissim of the Ribbono Shel Olam and give tzaddikim the kavod they never received but still deserve. It’s all about pirsumei nisa. ●