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The Fire that Rebuilds

Menacham Pines

The discovery of a temporary passport issued in Vilna for Rav Elchonon Wasserman Hy”d 77 years ago triggers a wave of recollections

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

 Mishpacha image

“There were two great tzaddikim in that generation,” Rav Shraga Plonchak reminisces in his Bnei Brak home. “One was the Chofetz Chaim. The second was Rav Elchonon — and in him, you could see his rebbi, the Chofetz Chaim” (Photos: Menachem Kalish)



av Shraga Plonchak contemplates a photo of Rav ElchononWasserman Hy”d, and the decades fall away.

“He looks young here,” he says. “In my memory the Rosh Yeshivah was older.”
Then he glances at the attached letter, typed in Lithuanian, Latvian, and French. A name jumps out: “Plonchak Srul Yitzchak,” followed by signature in black ink, still clear after 77 years.

“That’s my brother!” he exclaims. “My older brother, the first of four of us who went to learn under Rav Elchonon.”

3 Kislev 5701 / December 3, 1940 

A yeshivah bochur and a young man hurry through the Vilna streets, slipping into the office at 6 Sniadeckio near the national courthouse. The bochur, Shlomo Gutwirth, carries a letter with the details of Rav Elchonon Wasserman’s original Latvian passport.

The young man entering with the bochur is Rav Yisrael Plonchak, the rav in the village of Mishnitz, returning to learn in the Smilishok kollel near his beloved rosh yeshivah.

Opposite them sits Mr. Antanas Zykus, the notary public of Vilna. He takes the letter from them, folds it in two, and cranks it into the cylinder of the typewriter. A staccato clickety-clack echoes through the office as he types rapidly:

“We the undersigned, former citizens of Poland: Plonchak Srul Yitzchak and Gutwirth Solomon, the former aged 28 and the latter aged 19, are aware of the severity of bearing false testimony, and take full responsibility and declare and affirm that we personally are acquainted with Mr. Waserman Honels, born on 12 January 1875, of Baranovich, who lives currently in Smilishki, and he is indeed the same person who appears in the photo attached to this affirmation.”

They each take the pen in turn, dip it in ink, and sign.


The photo is pasted to the letter, and then the notary stamps his red seal at the top and bottom of the page, as well as at the end of the text, affirming the identity of Rav Elchonon (“Mr. Waserman Honels,” in Zykus’s rendering) and his students.

The young pair leave the office with hope in their hearts. With this temporary passport, perhaps the Rosh Yeshivah could escape the clutches of the Soviet Union.

Bearing this document in hand, Rav Elchonon would later stand in long lines in Kovno, at the offices of the Communist government. Aryeh Leib Baron, his student and later a rosh yeshivah in Canada, pleaded to be allowed to take his rebbi’s place in line. Rav Elchonon firmly refused.

When the Rosh Yeshivah’s turn came, the clerk snatched the paper and scanned it. “It says you are a Latvian citizen,” he said. Indeed, Rav Elchonon and his parents had immigrated to Latvia when he was a young child. “Well, today we control that land, and so you are considered a citizen of the Soviet Union. You cannot leave.”

So simply stated, the words had such dreadful significance.

“I am afraid that the entire Jewish nation will be given a cup of poison,” Rav Elchanan said later to Rav Yisrael Plonchak. “Perhaps in America they will be spared in the merit of their support of yeshivos and their tzedakah that will save them from death. Perhaps also in Eretz Yisrael, because [it says that] Har Tzion will be a refuge.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 686)

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