Rabbi Dr. Theodore Lewis was
a student at the Mir Yeshiva from 1935 to 1938.
In the introductory section of his book : Bar
Mitzvah Sermons at Touro Synagogue,
Rabbi Lewis describes Mir and the Yeshiva, as well
as experiences of students and townspeople in the
last years before the war. Rabbi Lewis was kind
enough to permit a portion of his book to be reproduced
of Mir Yeshiva
was born in Dublin, Ireland, and grew up under the influence
and guidance of Rabbi Dr. Isaac Halevy Herzog, who was
the Chief Rabbi of Ireland, and who later became Chief
Rabbi of Israel. As a teenager I decided to go to learn
in Yeshiva Etz Chaim, London, England. The Rosh Hayeshiva at
that time was Rabbi Elijahu Lopian (z"l), the world
famous ba'al musar. I remember vividly before
I decided to leave for the Yeshiva, Rabbi Herzog took
me into his study and took down a Gemara from the bookcase
and opened it to the Mishna (Hebrew text here). "This
is the way that is becoming for the study of the Torah:
a morsel of bread with salt thou must eat and water by
measure thou must drink, thou must sleep on the ground,
and live a life of trouble the while thou toilest in the
Torah." (Avot Ch. 6.4.)
he read and translated this passage, Rabbi Herzog must
have realized that this was rather an intimidating
program for a young lad, who had never been exposed to
Yeshiva life and who was leaving his native land and his
home for the first time in his life, to be told that if
he were to become a Yeshiva Bachur, he should expect
to live a frugal existence, if necessary, to sleep
on the floor, and to be subjected to a life of frustration,
denial and aggravation. As if to comfort me about the
challenge that lay ahead, Rabbi Herzog put his arm
around my shoulders and said "But, my boy, it won't be that bad!"
learned in the Etz Chaim Yeshiva for a couple of
years, and then on the advice of Rabbi Yecheskel Abramski
I set out with the late Kopul Rosen to learn in the celebrated
Mir Yeshiva, Poland. It was 1935, the time of the Italian-Abyssianian
war. Some people, afraid that Europe would be embroiled
in the conflagration, tried to dissuade us, but we took
little notice of their well meaning advice. We embarked
from Dover and set sail for Ostend, then to Brussels, Berlin,
Warsaw and finally to Mir.
was situated sixteen kilometres from the railway
station. This required that we travel the remainder of
the journey by road. We arrived in the middle of the rainy
season and experienced the muddy and marshy roads, for
which Poland is famous. We breathed sighs of relief when
our bus arrived at our destination, as we were debating
in our minds whether the dilapidated and battered vehicle
would overtopple in the uninviting mud and slime.
our destination, is a small hamlet, so small
in fact that it is not represented on the map. Before I
had left Dublin, I had sought the advice of the Polish
Consul, who told me, quite candidly, that he had never
heard of Mir. Indeed, its only claim to fame was the fact
that the Yeshiva was situated there. When I told the Consul
that Mir was near Baranovitch, which was clearly marked
on the map, he said to me, "But surely as a student, you would be able
to enjoy life much better in a big city like Warsaw,
Lemberg, or Cracow. Why do you want to seclude yourself
in such an isolated and remote area, which undoubtedly
will be lacking in the amenities, amusements, and conveniences,
of modern life. I found it difficult to explain to the
Consul, that it was simply because Mir did not have these
attractions, that I had decided to spend the best years
of my life there.
was a small town situated in eastern Poland,
not too far from the Russian border. Approximately 500
Jewish families lived there. Non Jews lived mainly on the
outskirts of Mir. Very few of them lived in the town. The
students of the Yeshiva were an important source of income
to the townspeople. The inhabitants were mainly shopkeepers
and scribes. The shopkeepers depended largely
on the support of the students of the Yeshiva and on trade
on the weekly market day, when peasants of the neighboring
farms came into town to sell their produce, and
to buy their week's supplies of necessities. The scribes
were famous for their beautiful handiwork and they exported
scrolls to Jewish communities all over the world.
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. The staple diet was
potatoes and bread of poor quality. Their position was
particularly pitiful during the long, dark, winter months.
The streets were snowbound, with snow piled many inches
high on the pavement and on the roads. It was not an
uncommon sight to see an old woman during the intense frost,
dressed in tatters, dragging a small sled, in which she
placed logs of wood which she had collected from her
Yeshiva had no dormitories, so the student
boarded with the townspeople. Small groups of six to eight
students banded together in private homes and hired the baalaboste, the
wife or widow of a house owner, to look after
them. In general, the homes were only able
to accommodate two students for sleeping.
I lodged in the home of a Torah scribe and ate
in the home of a widow, Etka Miranka, the
latter name given to her because she lived in Miranka
street. Etka catered for seven young men,
among whom were Polish, American, English, and Irish
students. Etka had two sons and a daughter
who served at the table. She augmented her
income from the students by buying grain
from the peasants, when they came into Mir from
outlying villages, to sell their produce,
and to stock up on supplies, purchased at the local
stores. Etka had very little money with which
to do business. So she borrowed whatever
spare money we had, on the night before the market
day, and would pay us back, when she sold
the grain she bought.
Etka took a motherly interest
in her boarders and did her best to attend
to their welfare. She was a plain cook
and was remarkable in her ability to provide
nourishing meals with the limited resources that were
available to her. When I became her boarder,
her home was lit by a kerosene lamp, but
as we, the "auslander", considered that too
primitive and inadequate, we each made a contribution towards
the installation of electric light.
week, a peasant woman would come to pick
up our laundry and return it a few days later, clean and
pressed. The students who came from other countries, came
from homes where they had all the modern amenities, found
it difficult and inconvenient, not to have indoor toilets.
Instead, there were outhouses in the back of the homes.
This became very inconvenient in the cold, winter months.
To the best of my recollection, the Yeshiva had the only
modern, indoor toilets in the region.
there was no indoor plumbing in the
homes, water was unavailable from the faucet. Instead,
water had to be transported, physically, in buckets from
a well in the center of the town. Some poor Jews eked out
a meagre livelihood by filling two buckets of water at
the well and carrying them yoke-wise and selling the water
to the house owners.There were two doctors and a dentist
in Mir. They provided care for the townspeople and Yeshiva
students. Operations and serious illnesses were referred
to hospitals and specialists in larger cities. Prescriptions
were compounded at a drug store in the town
had a police station and a post office.
Yosef, the postman, distributed mail in the town. When
I arrived in Mir, I lodged for a time in his home.
There was also a fire department, manned by volunteers.
There were a number of tailors in town who developed a
speciality in taking an old suit apart and resewing it
inside out. This did not cost as much as having a new suit
made. I still remember, with awe, the skill and competence
of Schmerel, the tailor who could not read or write, and,
yet, he was able to produce the most elegant and stylish
suits. He would measure his customers with a long piece
of brown paper and for measurements, he would put a
nick in the paper at the appropriate places.
streets in Mir were paved, mainly
with cobble stones. After the winter, when the snow had
lain on the ground for months and had melted under the
warm rays of the sun, it became very difficult to walk
in certain areas, on account of the mud. Travel between
Mir and outlying areas was either by a bus of ancient
vintage, or by a horse and cart. In the rainy season, this
became hazardous and messy, as travel was slow owing to
the mud. In the winter, we sometimes enjoyed the diversion
of sleigh rides over the snow filled roads.
Yeshiva was a huge stone building.
Six large windows lined each side, vitally necessary,
if the eyesight of students, who studied commentaries
printed with small type, was not to be impaired. The furniture
of the Yeshiva consisted of rows of seats and hundreds
of lecterns. Each student had, in fact, a lectern to
himself. At one end of the Yeshiva were two ovens, which
provided the heat for the entire building during the
My first impression of the Yeshiva
was a soul stirring one. It was at 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 in 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 scene 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.
the morning, I was taken
to the Rosh
Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel,
one of the world's most famous
authorities on Talmud. Great
credit is due to him for
his indefatigable labor in
raising the standard of study
in the Yeshiva. At all hours
of the day, students would
come to his private residence
to hear his opinion, on a "Chiddush",
an original interpretation. Indeed,
the Chiddush had to be of high
standard to satisfy the critical
mind of Rabbi Finkel.
a couple of weeks in the
Yeshiva, I was able to take stock of my
fellow students, with whom
I was destined to remain for a period
of four years. The majority
of the students were naturally of
Polish origin. But about
a fourth of the total were "Auslander",
that is from other countries. There
were, in fact, about forty Americans,
thirty Germans, six Austrians,
three French, one Swede, one Dane,
eight English, three Irish, three
Canadians, two South Africans,
four Belgians, etc.
Some of the
Auslander had qualified
in Universities as Doctors of Medicine, others
in Law. All were well
advanced in secular education. They were
very fine types. Each
had the same object in view, to become knowledgeable
in the abstruse problems
of the Talmud; to obtain a profound and
deep knowledge of Judaism;
to refine their character and personality.
In accordance with the
ethical way of life as propounded in the
teachings of Mussar.
To achieve their object, they did not think
a journey of thousands
of miles, from modern cities to a small,
remote village in Poland,
too much, or the exchange of the modern amenities
of life, for a more primitive
mode of living, too great a sacrifice.
Some had even brought
their wives with them and settled down in this
small outlying village.
They were willing to forget accustomed pleasures
and conveniences for
the discomforts of this village, because they knew
that they were acquiring
something of higher and more lasting worth
than material values.
Polish students were
outstanding scholars. Some were known as prodigies
in the Yeshiva world.
As Mir was one of the largest and greatest
Yeshiva in the world,
only those who had reached a very high standard
of proficiency in Talmudic
studies were admitted. They were for the
most part brilliant
keen-minded, and of an exceedingly
pleasant disposition. The majority of the
students were mature
men; the rest, youths, in their late teens.
of study were rather
long. Officially, nine hours of study a day were
required, but few
were content with so "limited" hours.
The majority of the students studied
until the early hours in the morning,
and on Thursday nights, some students
studied until five o'clock in the
morning. Electric light was switched
off in the whole town at one a.m.
From that hour, study was only
possible by the flickering light
of huge oil lamps, which were suspended
from the ceiling. This, however,
did not deter the students. No
difficulty, which was connected
with study, was deemed insuperable.
At the end of the term when books
were put in order, and the library
was temporarily closed, most students
felt life difficult. It seemed
that some vital component had been
removed from their lives. Everybody
studied with boundless zeal and
enthusiasm. All had but one thought
in mind-to waste as little time,
and to gain as much knowledge as
Twice a week, the Rosh
his son-in-law, Rabbi Chaim Shmulewitz, an eminent
a Pilpul, a casuistical address to the assembled
Pilpulim were eagerly looked forward to, as they concerned
very abstruse problems,
which necessitated the mind of a genius to unravel.
After the Pilpul,
the Rosh Hayeshiva was subjected to a veritable bombardment
of questions put
to him by the students. Groups would then form,
the various points raised by the Rosh Hayeshiva
and by Rabbi Chaim.
Mashgiach, Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz, the spiritual
leader of the
Yeshiva, delivered ethical and moral discourses several
times a week.
Many newcomers found it difficult to understand the
thought involved in these philosophical expositions,
deep erudition. The Mashgiach would discuss one
subject for a
couple of weeks introducing in each discourse, different
quotations from Rabbinic sources,
and giving new and original interpretations
to sayings of
the Rabbis. The students, who greatly prized these lectures,
in a huge square around the place where the Mashgiach
spoke. Not a
sound was to be heard during tile invariable ninety minutes
of the discourse.
their personal worries and problems to the Mashgiach.
was greatly treasured, as he was able to weigh up the
their true perspective. Particularly was his advice sought
in the matter
of choosing a bride.
We had very little leisure moments
term. Our sole recreation was a short walk for approximately
half an hour
outside the town. This was, of course, denied us,
rainy season, for the roads were more like a huge pond
of mud. At
the end of the term, the Polish students returned to
while we, the Auslander, remained in Mir, recuperating
from a strenuous
term's study and gathering energy for the ensuing
of the most important periods during the year was the
Rosh Hashana. Former students of the Yeshiva, Rabbis
responsible positions, came from the most distant parts
As many as six hundred students crowded the Yeshiva
at these times.
All came to be inspired by the brilliant ethical discourses
Mashgiach, who delivered as
many as three or four lectures each day.
This was spiritual preparation for Rosh Hashana.
was observed in true festive spirit. On Simchat
the townspeople would come into the Yeshiva to watch
the students celebrating.
The students would form themselves into two huge
in the center of which were the Roshei Hayeshiva. Utterly
away in an ecstasy of religious joy, the students danced
around their teachers,
pouring forth song after song, at the top of their
One ceased dancing only when all energy had been exhausted.
townspeople, obviously fascinated by such an impressive
sight, would remain
watching for hours.
been in the Yeshiva about six months when a great at
the Yeshiva. The Mashgiach became very ill. Professors
were brought from Vilna and a famous
professor was brought in from Liebzig, but to no avail.
the 18th day of Sivan 5696, there died one of the greatest
musar) Jewish moralists of all time. His death was
felt by the thousands of students who received spiritual
from him. To many, it was as if they had been bereaved
a parent. How deeply he affected his disciples may be
the fact that when one of his elder pupils, a Rabbi,
delivered a Hasped
at his grave side, he disclosed that scarcely a day
without a vision of the Mashgiach appearing before him.
1938, when a German invasion of Czechoslovakia
was imminent, the British colony received a letter from
the British Consul
in Warsaw, advising us to leave Poland and warning
us, that in the event of hostilities breaking
out, communications with the rest of Europe would be extremely
difficult. But we, the Auslander, decided
to remain. We were somehow convinced, that war would not
When the tension
had eased, we received another letter from the
complementing us on our wise decision. But, unfortunately,
the political situation
continued to deteriorate. Many foreign students,
at the urging of their parents, returned home.
Then came the critical month of August 1939. Telegrams
were pouring into the Yeshiva from anxious parents.
received four telegrams. The tension became so acute that
the British Consul
issued a circular letter to all British students
in Poland, warning
them to leave Poland immediately. After a consultation
with the Rosh Hayeshiva, I decided to return
home to Dublin, Ireland.
I proceeded at once to Warsaw
and was informed by the British Consul that I could
not travel by the normal route through Germany, either
by rail or by
air. The previous international train had returned
to Poland from Germany with all its windows shattered.
He advised me to travel by a round about route via Latvia,
Sweden, Norway and then to England.
the fact that my family
had sent me English currency for my fare
home, it was immediately converted
by the Polish Government into zlotys. The
Polish authorities would
sell me a ticket only as far as Riga in Polish
currency and despite
my protestations that they had converted
my English money into
Polish zlotys, they refused to sell me a
ticket further than Riga, in Polish currency. With
a heavy heart, I left Poland and arrived in Riga. I went
to the Yeshiva and I was delighted to meet
there a young man, with whom I studied in Mir. Realizing
my plight, he loaned me money to go to Stockholm, Sweden,
where I met
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, with whom I had studied
in Mir. As he took me to his apartment, his landlady
greeted us with the announcement that Warsaw had been
bombed by the Germans
and that war had broken out.
a day in Sweden, I proceeded to Bergen, Norway, hoping
to get a berth on a ship leaving for England.
My friend in Stockholm loaned me money for the trip. When
I arrived in Bergen,
I was greeted by the news that the Norwegian
Government had ordered
all ships to remain in the harbor. They
were afraid that
the ships would be sunk at sea by hostile
submarines. Permission was granted
to only one ship to leave the harbor. I
went down to the ship
and spoke to the captain, who told me that
all berths had been
taken. I appealed to him and told him that
I was a student, all alone
in Norway, and I had to get back to Dublin,
otherwise, I would
be stranded in Norway. Finally, he told
me to get on board, and he
would later see, when the ship was outside
Bergen, if he could
accommodate me. After a couple of hours
at sea, I was overjoyed when
the captain gave me the second mate's cabin.
After a thirty-six-hour journey,
in which we were supposed to have passed
U-boats, I finally arrived
in England and then to my final destination
always look back on those years that
I spent at Mir Yeshiva. They
were the happiest years of my life. As
I boarded the bus to embark on the first stage of my
journey home, I was shaken by pangs of regret and sorrow
at the thought of taking leave of colleagues for
whom I had such respect and admiration. Little did I then
realize the trials and tribulations that my fellow
students were destined to endure in the coming years.
my departure from Mir, much has transpired. A communal
grave on the outskirts
of the town bears silent testimony
to the massacre of the
majority of the Jewish inhabitants
and their aged Rabbi, Hagaon Avrohom Kamai (z"l).
one group of students
for Israel in 1947
and another for New
York in the
units of Mir
Yeshiva in Jerusalem
and in Brooklyn. . . . . . . . . .
of the Mir Yeshiva 1937, at the table of a local baalaboste
(housewife) who cooked for them. She was known as Etka
Miranka. (Miranka was not her last name, but the name
of the street where she lived.) Seated
from left to right: Abrahm Pincus (American), Alex Weisfogel
(English), Theodore Lewis (Irish) and Avraham Orlan (Polish).
descriptions of life in Mir by students from other countries: Food and houses in Mir 1935-1939
by Rabbi Theodore Lewis Memories of Mir by Rabbi
Judah Broyde (also a student at the Mir Yeshiva in
Rabbi Theodore Lewis passed away October 5, 2010, in Brooklyn, NY, at the age of 95. He was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1915. After graduating from Dublin University, he studied in London and at the Mir Yeshiva in Mir, Poland. He was rabbi at the largest synagogue in Ireland, Adelaide Road Synagogue, Dublin, before he immigrated to America. He became rabbi of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. The Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in North America, was established in 1763. Rabbi Lewis remained their rabbi for 36 years, retiring in 1985 to live in Israel and then in Brooklyn. In 1999, he gave permission for his report of his experiences in Mir to be included on this web site.
As of 2004, Rabbi Alex Weisfogel is Rabbi Emeritus
of the Kodimoh Synagogue in Springfield, MA