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Lettres de Mir by Ernest Gugenheim

Book Review by Patrick Gordis

 

Lettres de Mir is an interesting collection of mostly familial letters written in French by the Alsatian native Ernest Gugenheim (1916-1977) in the year 1938 during a year spent studying at the Mir Yeshiva to supplement his rabbinical education at a seminary in Paris.  These letters have been very attractively arranged with many supplementary photos and expertly annotated in great depth by the author’s widow, Claude-Annie Gugenheim.  Although clearly intended as the private correspondence of a young student (then twenty-two), they are written in such a lively and engaging manner that the general reader of today even with only a passing interest in the Mir Yeshiva and its environs is drawn from one letter to the next with a strong sense of narrative interest.

The special charm of these letters is their immediacy and authenticity of emotion and description.  The first awe-inspiring impressions of the religious services, prayers and intensity of study at the Mir Yeshiva are all recorded with a fresh and vivid clarity.  We learn that the Yeshiva runs on its own time ¾ of an hour ahead of local time; that the windows rattle loudly with the force of the “amens” during holiday services; that all the Passover matzah is made by hand and without the aid of any machines.  The abject poverty of many of the residents and their primitive living conditions are touched upon, while noting that as a foreign student the author himself was very well fed and cared for by his accommodating balebuste in Mir, Batcheva Lechinski (1).  The long hours and grueling course of yeshiva study are all detailed in depth, along with many specific questions and issues which arise in his day to day studies (which may interest the more religiously astute readers).  We meet both the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Eliezer Finkel and the Mashgiach, Rav Yeheskel Lowenstein.  The many obstacles to transportation, communication and financial succor are all elaborated upon in great depth.  Even the threat of the menacing outside world is felt keenly as Hitler’s voice is heard one day on one of the few radios in this remote, cloistered backwater.

English readers already have brief, but moving reminisces of Mir during the same period in the preface to Theodore Lewis’, Bar Mitzvah Sermons at the Touro Synagogue.  Likewise, Ruchama Shain, in her celebrated memoir of her father, All for the Boss, has similarly reconstructed life in Mir at this time in a series of fictional letters to her parents in the United States.  The correspondence of Ernest Guggenheim adds significantly to the depth of our knowledge of life at the Mir Yeshiva for a foreign student on the eve of the Shoah.

Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that anyone reading this English review and synopsis will be galvanized to acquire a book essentially unavailable in the United States and written in French which is not exactly a major Lingua Franca in the Jewish world.  As such, I thought it worthwhile to translate or relate some sections and anecdotes found in the letters which are of general interest to Mir researchers, most of whose ancestors or relatives had only a tangential connection to the Yeshiva itself.  The separate (and unequal) world of the Yeshiva bachurim and leute (or common folk) is aptly illustrated here:

“Everyday, but especially on Shabbes, the ‘juivettes’ [Jewesses] promenade on the ‘grand-rue’, where I happen to live, in the middle of the road, sporting the latest fashions (of Mir, naturally), but in very bright, exotic colors: yellows, greens and reds to be visible from afar.  They are capable of milling up and down this strip even 50 or 100 or 1000 times on a Shabbes afternoon.  And what is particularly interesting is to see the efforts which they make to attract the attention of the bachurim of the Yeshiva.  One senses from afar their desire to escape from here in order to gain passage into the wider world and into the great cities, to Paris, London or New York (any will do).  Unfortunately for them, the bachurim pay zero attention and if any of them becomes engaged, it would be with the daughter of a Rav or a young girl graduated from the schools of Bais Yaakov (2), and not with one of these ‘welde Tiere’ [wild animals] as Batsheva call them when she makes a drash on the habits of modest dress.  Needless to say, she always wears a tikhel (3) [headscarf].” (p. 83-84)

In several letters, Gugenheim notes the poverty of the surrounding community, “Obviously, not everything is perfect.  Mir is a town of 4 to 5,000 inhabitants, the vast majority of whom live in a misery almost beyond belief (4); the entire town lives nearly solely from the Yeshiva.” (p. 43)

In various passages, the author is awe-struck by the intensity of prayer and study at the Mir Yeshiva:  “Try now to let your imagination run so that you could visualize what is coming next.  It is ten-thirty in the evening and I am approaching the Yeshiva.  The first thing I hear from outside the building is a humming, or rather it is louder than that, but it is really nothing compared to what is to follow.  I enter and behold an immense, truly immense hall in which there are somewhere between fifty to one hundred fellows, matmidim [diligent Yeshiva students], who are singing, wailing, swaying and trembling in a frenzy of devotion which at once delights and terrifies.  At any rate, this exceeded everything that I had imagined (5).  I must add as well that only a small contingent was present because the hour of Lernen [study] is past.  I can only imagine what it will be like when the shul is filled with everyone!” (p. 28). 

Later, the author recounts a similar scene in a letter to his sister and brother-in-law: “Imagine a hall like the center of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève at its busiest times.  A perpetual movement preoccupies the hall:  heads bend and straighten with an ever more violent frenzy.  Their lecterns dance the sarabande, voices come and go: cries, chants, humming.  It is impossible to resist for long this infectious enthusiasm which wins you over unconsciously.  Such is the atmosphere in which I am living here, when everyone throngs the Mir Yeshiva, which never empties.” (p. 33).

The mixed feelings many Frenchmen then and now harbor towards American eating habits is revealed when the author announces the arrival of the first crop of strawberries in a letter dated June 15th 1938, “It’s curious, there are some Americans here who are unable to eat strawberries except in a glass of cream and sugar (6).  Besides the cream, they never eat them without buttered bread!” (p. 100) 

On the other hand. only weeks later, he reports that the American students are elated to see in his Paris-Soir magazine a photo of their boxing champion “José Louis” with the Nazi icon, Max Schmeling at his feet.  Now the entire Yeshiva joins in rejoicing with the Americans over this German defeat, even in a boxing duel! (p. 103).

The relative affluence and abundance enjoyed by foreign students is stressed in several places, “Morning and evening, as I have written, one is served cocoa, butter, fromage blanc or other, similar Dutch style cheese, sardines, eggs, cream, all at the same price.  Everything is included except the tea.  For lunch, in general, there’s fowl (hen, duck, goose whose feet are also eaten) or veal or minced meat, with soup or vegetables.  As for dessert, apple or prune compote, if one wants it.”  (p. 38). 

Gugenheim also takes credit for introducing dressed salad to Mir, “I’ve given up on asparagus, but, on the other hand, I have introduced into the Stanzie [a boarding house], fresh lettuce salad with oil and vinegar dressing, which represents for the Miriens a dish wholly unknown.” (p. 97)

Later, this description of gastronomical abundance prompts a humorous reply from Rabbi Liber at the seminary in Paris who writes, “I shall not show your letter to all your seminary colleagues; they will come to believe that the Jews of Poland eat poultry at every meal!  They can surmise what a good bargain poultry is in that country.” (p. 47).

__________

After only nine intense and eventful months spent studying at the Mir Yeshiva, Rabbi Gugenheim is prematurely forced to return to France on the eve of World War II.  Prior to returning to France, Gugenheim also reports on a whirlwind tour of Poland, visiting the leaders of Hasidic dynasties at resorts in the Carpathian mountains and visiting Jewish centers like Lemberg, Cracow, Lublin, Warsaw & Vilna (some of these travel letters are unfortunately lost from the collection).

As a sort of epilogue to the Mir Yeshiva experience, a final letter has been appended indicating the disgust the author felt at attending a Yom Kippur service in a small town in eastern France immediately upon his return from Poland.

“I prefer to tell you straight away that even without having passed through a Yeshiva, one could be perfectly disgusted with such a spectacle.  I am convinced that this Yom Kippur service, from beginning to end, was nothing less than a hilul ha-Shem [desecration of God’s name].  I do not wish to speak of the accompaniment of a harmonium played by a non-Jew.  I wish to recall only that one hour after the start of the service, we finally had a minyan thanks to the pensioners from the hospice; that the reading of the Law was nothing but a grand and shameful comedy; that in the very midst of ‘Al ‘het, no one is embarrassed to unfurl L’Est Républicain [a French regional daily published in Nancy], and finally that a member of the Commission enlisted a young man, deemed to be the most goyish of all the assembly, to turn on the lights since it had begun to grow dark.  Only one thing consoles me in all of this: it is not all together bad to know to what depths French Judaism has fallen...” (p. 143).

Perhaps the most valuable contribution of these letters is to provide some needed perspective on how far removed our modern, materialistic and technologically oriented life in America is from the spiritual life of an Eastern European Yeshiva set in a poor village.  If indeed, as the author notes in an aside, the famous Polish Jewish scholar and historian in Warsaw, Rabbi Moses Schorr was considered “practically a goy” by the Yeshiva bachurim (p. 75), then we have to wonder how most of them would view our own eclectic American Jewish communities, synagogues and institutions today as they have (for the most part) evolved very far from the model of the old Mir Yeshiva.  Mir was an extremely primitive and remote backwater even in the context of inter-bellum Poland.  It lacked almost all creature comforts.  Medicine was medieval.  Indoor plumbing was practically unknown.  Hunger and desperate poverty were commonplace.  Nonetheless, despite all of these hardships – or perhaps precisely as a consequence of them – inspired students came from all over the world to pursue their rabbinic studies in a Yeshiva where there was no “modern life” to distract them from an intense course of religious study  which embodied the scholarly and ethical life idealized in the non-Chasidic orthodox world.

__________

Reviewers Notes:

  1. “There is a young woman with whom I have also become friendly.  Though she is older than I am, Bat Sheva Leshinsky treats me like a sister of hers.  Her stanze, which is considered one of the best in Mir, caters mostly to the American or foreign yeshiva boys.  There is always a waiting line to get into her stanze.  Her husband, Reb Dovid, learns in the yeshiva.  She has three young children, Rochel, Rivka and Yankel.”  All for the Boss, p. 240. (See also, p. 282, 314 & 318)
  2. “David Bender married Basya Epstein from Otovsk.  She studied at the Sara Schenirer Bais Yaakov, and is an outstanding girl from a well known family.  ... Boruch Kaplan is engaged to Vichne Eisen.  As she is an orphan, her uncle, Reb Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky, the mashgiach of the Baranowitz Yeshiva, brought her up.  She is one of the best talmidos of the Sara Schenirer Bais Yaakov.”  All for the Boss, p. 296-297.
  3. “I’ve become quite friendly with a young woman who is here with her husband.  Her father is a rabbi in a little city not very far from here.  She noticed that I keep my hair covered and expressed surprise.  ‘Imagine, you were born in the great America and still are extremely religious.’  Though the young women here observe many of the mitzvos, surprisingly, when it comes to keeping their hair covered, they are lax.  I explained to her that one of the important mitzvos of a married women is to keep her hair covered.  I gave her a pretty kerchief as a gift.  A few days later she came to my room with the kerchief prettily draped over her head.  Papa, I have one recruit to my credit.”  All for the Boss, p. 304.
  4. “Many of the other Jewish inhabitants depended entirely on support from relatives in America, England, and South America.  Indeed the whole community was a poor one.  In many homes, the poverty was acute, some lacking even the bare essentials of life.” Bar Mitzvah Sermons at Touro Synagogue, p. xiii.  “The poverty in Mir is extreme.  I have made friends with a very fine woman.  Her name is Fradel.  I visited her tiny hut, where she lives with her husband and ten children.  I do not know where the children can find room to sleep ...  I noticed several large round loaves of bread stacked on a high shelf.  When she saw me gazing at them, she said matter of factly, ‘I keep them up there so that the children will not get to them.  The more stale the loaves get, the less the children will eat.  The bread lasts longer...”  All for the Boss, p. 253-254.
  5. “My first impression of the Yeshiva was a soul stirring one.  It was night, when all the students were engaged in the study of Mussar – personal ethics and piety.  As I traversed the grounds of the Yeshiva, I heard a voice of yearning, a yearning towards spiritual uplifting, a voice sublime, which made all things material, recede into the distance.  I can still hear that sound, its deep emotion ringing in my ears.  It is one of the few experiences I will never forget.  As I entered the glass doors, a most impressive sight met my eyes.  Over four hundred young men were poring over books of Mussar, in which they were intensely engrossed.  The sincerity of the sight, which I witnessed, moved me profoundly.”  Bar Mitzvah Sermons at Touro Synagogue, p. xv
  6. “The truskavkes (strawberries) are a much smaller variety than in the States, but luscious when served with sour cream.”  All for the Boss, p. 262.

Note: The book included a Gugenheim family tree for author, showing his relationship to a number of well known rabbis.

Gugenheim, Ernest. 2006. Lettres de Mir: d’un monde de Tora effacé par le Shoah [Letters from Mir: a world of the Torah erased by the Shoah]. Paris: Biblieurope. ISBN 2-84828-051-4

Updated December 2007

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