| Magazine Feature |

Linked to a Lost World  

Torah historian Rav Dovid Mandelbaum captures the greatness of the Kozoglover Rav 

Weaving through the narrow streets of Bnei Brak in search of a parking spot, I took note of the shtiblach along the way, names like Makova (Hungary), Kuzmir, and Aleksander (Poland), while stealing a glance down Rechov Baal Shem Tov as well. Granted, the disparity between the modern high-rises of this pulsing city and the narrow streets and old buildings throwing back to prewar Lodz or Sosnowiec might just be my preoccupation with the upcoming meeting that’s eliciting associations with the past. For I’m preparing to meet Rav Dovid Avrohom Mandelbaum, someone who has dedicated his life and career to making the world of prewar Polish Jewry come alive.

It’s fitting that Rav Mandelbaum lives in the Zichron Meir neighborhood, which was established in 1934 by a wealthy Chortkover chassid by the name of Rav Chaim Yaakov Halperin in tribute to Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin.

This is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Bnei Brak, and one of several that had been funded by Rav Halperin. Situated in close proximity to both the Gerrer beis medrash and the Ponevezh yeshivah, it was home to numerous illustrious personalities, including the Chazon Ish and Rav Shmuel Wosner, the latter having served as the neighborhood rav for nearly 70 years where he established the Israeli version of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, bearing the same name as the famed yeshivah where he studied in his youth.

The overflowing, packed shelves lining Rav Dovid Mandelbaum’s study aren’t really a surprise. Reb Dovid has spent decades publishing seforim of many of the greatest Torah leaders of prewar Polish Jewry, and authoring many of his own volumes, including an edited edition of Talmud Yerushalmi, Daf al HaDaf on various masechtos in Shas, and other volumes.

Reb Dovid is warm and friendly, but while he’s a tremendously accomplished talmid chacham, I clarify at the outset of our conversation that I’m actually not a talmid chacham at all, but rather am here to discuss another facet of his vast literary output — the many history books and biographical works that he’s researched and authored about those same prewar Polish Torah giants.

Over the next few hours, we explore various stories of the personalities, institutions, and events that he’s researched and brought to the world through his many best-selling books. But what I’m especially curious about is his latest release, a 400-page biography of Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frommer, the rosh yeshivah of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin following the passing of Rav Meir Shapiro, known to posterity by the name of his sefer, Eretz Tzvi, and by the small shtetl of Kozoglov where he commenced his rabbinical career.

“Since my childhood I’ve felt connected to the story of the yeshivah of Lublin and of Rav Meir Shapiro,” Rav Mandelbaum says. His father was a talmid of the yeshivah, and escaped at the war’s outset through Japan to Shanghai together with a small yeshivah contingent. As an only child, growing up in Tel Aviv among a community of survivors, Reb Dovid absorbed the atmosphere of that bygone world.

Through his father, Rav Moshe Mandelbaum, he became acquainted with nearly all of the 80-plus survivors of Chachmei Lublin. And over the years he managed to interview almost every one of them. From a young age, on his own initiative and at his own expense, he trekked around the country — and the world — seeking out alumni of the great prewar yeshivah.

He turns to his cabinet and withdraws a box containing index cards. “Take a look,” he beckons. “These are the notes I took of all those conversations with these old-timers over the years. These are their stories and testimonies, the basis for the books I wrote about the yeshivah and its illustrious leaders.”

He enjoyed a close relationship with people like Rav Pinchas Hirschprung, the late rav of Montreal and one of Chachmei Lublin’s most prominent alumni. “But while many of the names most people have never heard of,” he adds, “their recollections have enriched my understanding of the yeshivah, its teachers, their hometowns, and the entire time period in which they grew up.”

From the time he was a child, Rav Mandelbaum would seek out his father’s friends, gathering data and stories of prewar gedolim. He was just 20 when he began publishing their works

Staying Connected

Rav Mandelbaum began this investigative mission when he was just a child, seeking out his father’s friends, gathering data and stories. By the time he was 20 years old, he’d already begun to publish seforim of some of these prewar gedolim.

Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, Reb Dovid sought out people who knew personalities such as the Sfas Emes of Gur and the Avnei Nezer of Sochatchov. “I spoke to people who even remembered the pre-World War I Jewish world as well.”

Each conversation was duly recorded on another series of index cards, as the passion of the young Gerrer chassid from Tel Aviv developed into a hobby and then a career with a mission, translating the accumulated wealth of knowledge into book after book to be consumed by a large and diverse readership.

His father, Rav Moshe Mandelbaum, was a Gerrer chassid who grew up in Warsaw, and was a close talmid of the great Warsaw gadol Rav Menachem Ziemba. This led to Reb Dovid’s interest in him.

Pursuing his self-made mission with a zeal that hasn’t diminished over the ensuing decades, his first project was the editing and publishing of the chiddushim of Rav Ziemba. One of the preeminent rabbanim of Poland, Rav Ziemba was a Gerrer chassid who was a respected posek across Poland and a leader of Agudas Yisrael. He was killed by the Nazis in the final liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto during the uprising. In addition to the sefer he published way back, Rav Mandelbaum says he has a first-ever biography of Rav Menachem Ziemba in the works.

When Rav Mandelbaum published the Chiddushei Hagramaz of Rav Menachem Ziemba in the late 1970s, he went to the Steipler to obtain a haskamah. At first the Steipler told the young scholar quite firmly that his policy was to never write haskamos for anyone. His no-haskamos policy notwithstanding, the Steipler still wanted his guest to feel comfortable, so he excused himself and returned to the room with three seforim. The first two were first-edition copies of Rav Menachem Ziemba’s works Gur Aryeh Yehudah and Totzaos Chaim that Rav Ziemba had published. The Steipler’s copies contained a handwritten dedication from Rav Ziemba himself in the flyleaf. The third sefer he brought out was the first printing of the Steipler’s own sefer Shaarei Tevunah, which he had published as a young man in Poland in 1925.

“The Steipler told me that as a young man he was in a challenging financial situation and was advised to publish a sefer in order to boost his income. When he realized that the sales of Shaarei Tevunah were rather limited, he was further advised to attempt to sell them in the large and more urban Warsaw community, where it would be more likely to be purchased. Upon arrival to Warsaw, he decided to obtain approbations from the recognized gedolei hador in Poland — Rav Menachem Ziemba as well as Rav Meir Yechiel Halstock, the Ostrovtza Gaon. He then proceeded to manually glue these haskamos onto the title page of the seforim he had brought with him to sell. The copy of Shaarei Tevunah that the Steipler took out was one of the rare copies that had Rav Ziemba’s glued-on haskamah, and the Steipler showed it to me to compensate for his declining to write one for the sefer of Rav Ziemba that I’d edited. As an interesting postscript to the story, it’s worth noting that all subsequent editions of Shaarei Tevunah were published without those haskamos, and when I related the story to Rav Chaim Kanievsky, he wasn’t even aware that Rav Ziemba had written a haskamah for his father’s sefer.”

Later on, Rav Moshe Mandelbaum studied in Chachmei Lublin where he was a talmid of Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frommer, the Kozoglover Rav. Rav Mandelbaum says he was fascinated “by the great rabbanim who were associated with my father, and in general the Torah of great Polish scholars.” In that vein, he’s edited and published the works of the Chelkas Yoav (Rav Yoav Yehoshua Weingarten), the Kli Chemda (Rav Meir Don Plotzki), the Pardes Yosef (Rav Yosef Pachnovsky), Warsaw rabbanim Rav Nosson Spiegelglass and Rav Avraham Weinberg, a 13-volume work of halachic responsa by 19th-century Galician posek Rav Shlomo Drimer, and many others — well over a hundred volumes.

A Household Name

We return to Reb Dovid’s favorite subject: Rav Meir Shapiro and Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, along with his current publication on the life of Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frommer, the Kozoglover Rav, also known as the Eretz Tzvi for his sefer of the same name. Over the years he’s researched and published several volumes of the Torah of Rav Meir Shapiro and the Eretz Tzvi, and has authored a biography of Rav Meir Shapiro, the history of the yeshivah, and the story of the Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin contingent that escaped to Shanghai during the war.

Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin was the vision and product of Rav Meir Shapiro. Opened with pomp and ceremony in the summer of 1930, Rav Meir Shapiro’s untimely passing a mere three years later left the yeshivah’s future in doubt. The one chosen to succeed him was a student of the Avnei Nezer of Sochatchov named Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frommer, who was already associated with the yeshivah and renowned as one of the foremost Torah scholars in Poland. He remained at the yeshivah’s helm until the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 forced the yeshivah to close its doors.

“The Eretz Tzvi was the rosh yeshivah for the majority of Chachmei Lublin’s short existence, and most of the talmidim who survived were his talmidim,” Rav Mandelbaum says. “And yet, very little is known about him. My hope is that the book will rectify this historical gap, and that our generation will gain an appreciation for who this giant was.”

When Reb Dovid was growing up, Rav Frommer was a household name. “My father was a close talmid of his, and even passed away while he was studying the sefer Eretz Tzvi on Erev Shabbos with a pen in his hand writing chiddushei Torah. I was always a little jealous of my father and his friends that they had been exposed to such giants from a young age, and so I too endeavored to connect to that world, through publishing their Torah.”

Rav Mandelbaum’s full-length biography of the Kozoglover Rav comes on the heels of several volumes of his Torah. Rav Mandelbaum edited and republished the Eretz Tzvi, and collected many of Rav Frommer’s previously unpublished writings.

“Generally, it’s a challenge to fund the publishing of these seforim, but there was special siyata d’Shmaya with the Eretz Tzvi,” Rav Dovid says. “Rav Frommer’s nephew, Mr. Dov Frommer, lived in Haifa and was very interested in having his illustrious uncle’s works published, so he funded the entire project.”

Publishing these seforim brought Reb Dovid into contact with great Torah leaders across the spectrum while he was still a young avreich. “The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, and Rav Elyashiv were some of the many gedolim who had a love for seforim and appreciated when I brought them the latest publication,” Rav Dovid relates. “A member of Rav Elyashiv’s family told me that he loved the Eretz Tzvi and would regularly study it on Shabbos morning.”

Chassid to the End

In many ways, the biography of Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frommer is the natural next step in bringing his Torah to life. What emerges from the pages is a story of a life of great personal achievement, which was then shared with an entire generation of students. Tragically, Rav Frommer, beloved rosh yeshivah of Poland’s largest prewar yeshivah, along with most of his students, was murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frommer was born into a family of Sochatchov chassidim in 1884. As a teenager he traveled to Sochatchov in order to imbibe the Torah of his rebbe, Rav Avraham Borenstein — the Avnei Nezer. As the Avnei Nezer was one of the first rebbes in history to maintain his own yeshivah, Rav Frommer became not just a chassid of his rebbe, but a talmid as well.

Rav Frommer enjoyed an unusually close relationship with the Avnei Nezer, who held his close talmid in high esteem as the following story attests: One time someone submitted a kvittel to the Chazon Ish, but as the ultimate Litvak, the Chazon Ish refused to accept it, encouraging his guest to simply talk to him and discuss the issue. A student of Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frommer was present and related to the Chazon Ish that once the Avnei Nezer told Rav Frommer that he can receive kvittlach from petitioners. The latter demurred, wondering how could he receive kvittlach if he wasn’t a rebbe? The Avnei Nezer told him, “You can receive kvittlach with your koach haTorah!” The Chazon Ish smiled and took the kvittel.

In 1902, at the age of 18, Rav Aryeh Tzvi married his first cousin Esther Shweitzer. Settling down in his wife’s hometown of Milowice, he was supported initially by his father-in-law and uncle, Rav Yehuda Shrage Shweitzer. The couple eventually had seven children, four sons and three daughters. When his oldest son was born, Rav Yosef Engel — one of the greatest early 20th-century Polish rabbanim — served as sandek, and the Eretz Tzvi himself performed the bris.

Rav Frommer later returned to Sochatchov as a maggid shiur at the behest of the Avnei Nezer, and following the Avnei Nezer’s passing, his son and successor Rav Shmuel Borenstein — the Shem Mishmuel — would occasionally listen to his young chassid’s shiurim. Later on, the Eretz Tzvi would be appointed rabbi in a small shtetl called Kozoglov, and his association with the town would be immortalized by his appellation: the Kozoglover Rav. He was hired to the rabbinate of Zawiercie in 1924, and five years later moved to Sosnowiec, where he remained until he moved to Lublin. In each of these positions he maintained a yeshivah as well, and his circle of talmidim grew with each move.

Though a close chassid of three successive Sochatchover rebbes — the Avnei Nezer, the Shem Mishmuel, and the Chasdei Dovid — he forged relationships with many of the leading lights of interwar Poland, who were impressed by the young man’s Talmudic prowess and pedagogical abilities. While vacationing in Krenitz, the Kozoglover Rav chanced upon Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (the Brisker Rav), Rav Shimon Shkop, and Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz — all engaged in an animated Torah discussion. As the Brisker Rav himself later related to a talmid of the Kozoglover, “A chassidic-looking fellow approached and listened to our conversation. Suddenly he casually said, ‘This idea is an explicit Tosafos in Bechoros.’ And it was! As the conversation continued, with each participant raising a question, his response was always the same. ‘The answer can be found in Tosafos here, the question is related to Tosafos there, and so on.’ He had a Tosafos for everything — the Kozoglover was the gaon of Poland!”

The Kozoglover enjoyed a close relationship with the Imrei Emes of Gur, both through an active correspondence as well as personal interactions. At one of their meetings, two cups of tea were placed before them. The Rebbe scooped a spoonful of sugar into the Kozoglover’s cup and stirred it, then beckoned him to enjoy his tea. The Kozoglover was incredulous. “The Rebbe stirred the tea and I should drink it?” No amount of cajoling would change his mind, so the Rebbe switched the two cups and his young guest took his own sugar and drank the tea.

When the last Rebbe of Radomsk, Rav Shlomo Chanoch Rabinowitz, celebrated the bris of a grandchild, the Minchas Elazar of Munkatch came all the way from Slovakia to Sosnowiec to partake in the festivities. Among the many who visited the illustrious guest was the Kozoglover Rav, who resided in Sosnowiec at the time. The two spent four hours discussing Torah topics, and when the Kozoglover finally departed, the Minchas Elazar asked his host for a towel to wipe his brow, telling him, “This is the first time that a Poilisher gaon shukeled me like a lulav!”

When the Kedushas Tzion of Bobov made a wedding, he invited the Kozoglover, who attended and sat at the table of honor together with some of the greatest sages of the day. The Bobover Rebbe noticed that despite the mayhem around him, the Kozoglover remained intensely focused on his thoughts of learning, and even pointed out to his chassidim to observe what true diligence and concentration in Torah really is.

One of the most memorable periods of the Eretz Tzvi’s life was his only visit to Eretz Yisrael shortly before Purim of 1935, together with the third Sochatchov Rebbe, Rav Dovid Borenstein, the Chasdei Dovid.

The Eretz Tzvi felt a great spiritual uplift for the duration of his visit, and when he was in Tel Aviv he commented, “A regular weekday in Eretz Yisrael has as much holiness as a second day of Yom Tov in chutz l’Aretz.”

He spent Pesach in Yerushalayim with the Sochatchover Rebbe, and enjoyed going often to the Kosel, once even spending the entire night studying Gemara while standing. While in the Holy City, he had the opportunity to meet with senior kabbalist Rav Shlomo Eliezer Alefandri, known as the Saba Kadisha. The Eretz Tzvi was quite proficient in the mystical portions of Torah — his Lubliner talmidim testified that he studied Zohar every Friday night. The Saba Kadisha gave him a white kittel as a parting gift, and the Kozoglover so treasured the garment that he would wear it while studying the Zohar on Leil Shabbos.

Rav Frommer was still in Eretz Yisrael for Lag B’omer, traveling to Meron together with his rebbe. This particular year brought together some of the greatest tzaddikim of Poland in Meron for the festivities. They were joined there by the Strikover Rebbe and Rebbe Shaul Yedidya Taub of Modzhitz, both of whom were visiting Eretz Yisrael at the time. In addition, the children of the Ahavas Yisrael of Vizhnitz — the Imrei Chaim (the future Vizhnitzer Rebbe), the Damesek Eliezer, the Mekor Baruch of Seret-Vizhnitz, and Rav Menachem Mendel Hager — were there on a visit too. It was quite a prestigious gathering. And a poignant one. Several years later some of this group — such as the Modzhitz and Vizhnitz Rebbes — would be able to escape the inferno and make it back to Eretz Yisrael, while others, including the Eretz Tzvi and his rebbe, would perish.

As his visit came to a close after Shavuos once again in the Holy City, Rav Frommer expressed his desire to stay. “Even if I could be a shamash in a shul or a melamed in a cheder, I’d stay here for the rest of my life.” Alas it was not to be. The British Mandatory government refused to extend his tourist visa and so he returned to the helm of his yeshivah in Lublin.

Even in the Ghetto

The passing of Rav Meir Shapiro at the young age of 46 on 7 Cheshvan 1933, was a devastating blow to Polish Jewry. This charismatic leader would prove a challenge to replace. A committee was formed to manage Chachmei Lublin, which was overseen by the Boyaner Rebbe of Krakow, Rav Moshenyu Friedman. For a full year following the Lubliner Rav’s passing, candidates were considered for the position of rosh yeshivah, but none of them were a fit. Until finally they came to the conclusion that the solution was right there in front of them the entire time.

Rav Meir Shapiro, who had a close relationship with Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frommer, had asked him to join the faculty of the yeshivah early on. The Kozoglover would make the trip from Sosnowiec on a regular basis to be in the yeshivah in Lublin, and now he was formally appointed rosh yeshivah. He moved to Lublin and thus began the most famous and fruitful period of his life.

(With visits to kivrei tzaddikim so prevalent today, Rav Dovid Mandelbaum mentions a side point worth noting. With the Eretz Tzvi at the head of the procession, the annual yahrtzeit visit to Rav Meir Shapiro’s kever — then in the new Lublin Cemetery — rivaled in size the other three main yahrtzeit gatherings of prewar Poland: Lag B’omer at the Rema’s kever in Krakow, 21 Adar at the Noam Elimelech in Lizhensk, and 25 Nissan at the Divrei Chaim in Sanz.)

With the financial burden of the institution the purview of the board, the Eretz Tzvi was free to devote his energies to his shiurim, his talmidim, and his personal avodah.

“My father told me, and I’ve subsequently heard it from other talmidim as well, that the majority of the Kozoglover’s day was actually devoted to davening,” Rav Mandelbaum shares. “He may have been the biggest rosh yeshivah in Poland, but he was first and foremost a fiery Sochatchover chassid. He’d spend hours in an animated davening, while Shemonesh Esreh alone took well over an hour.”

One of his more ambitious projects on a communal scale was the addition of the mishnah yomi to the daf yomi cycle instituted by Rav Meir Shapiro. The idea was to incorporate the mishnayos that didn’t have corresponding masechtos of Gemara, as well as to make the daily learning regimen accessible to those who weren’t capable of studying Gemara. The new rosh yeshivah took the initiative and brought the idea to the religious Yiddish press, and he himself delivered a mishnah yomi shiur in Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin.

In the spring of 1938, the second Siyum HaShas was celebrated all over Poland, with the primary festivities being hosted by the Kozoglover in Chachmei Lublin. This Siyum included the siyum on Mishnayos, and was accompanied by a hachnassas sefer Torah in memory of Rav Meir Shapiro. It was a glorious occasion attended by thousands, among them the Sochatchover Rebbe and Rav Menachem Ziemba. The Kozoglover himself made the siyum on both Shas and Mishnayos.

This was to be one of the last large gatherings of Polish Jewry in all of its glory. A year later, the clouds of war were gathering over Europe, and when the dust settled after six years of destruction, three million Polish Jews would be exterminated, among them the Sochatchover Rebbe, Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frommer, and Rav Menachem Ziemba, along with most of the students of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin.

Shortly following the war’s outbreak, the yeshivah officially closed and the students scattered. Rav Frommer escaped to Warsaw, but in the bedlam of those early months of the war and the general breakdown in communications, rumors reached Eretz Yisrael that he had been killed, and there were even hespedim delivered in his memory in various shuls around the country.

But he was still very much alive. A minyan was organized in his meager lodging in the Warsaw Ghetto, and he became very active in communal life as well. He sat on a beis din in the ghetto, together with Rav Menachem Ziemba and Rav Shimshon Shtockhammer, and made himself available to all those who requested his assistance with halachic matters or for general words of inspiration. With the encouragement of the Sochatchover Rebbe who was also in the ghetto, he and his close friend Rav Avremele Weinberg set about a seemingly insurmountable task — establishing an underground yeshivah in the midst of the ghetto horrors.

Nearly 100,000 Warsaw Jews died just from the physical conditions of the ghetto — disease and malnutrition — prior to any deportations to the gas chambers at Treblinka. It seemed almost inconceivable to establish a yeshivah under those conditions, yet they weren’t deterred. Tens of bochurim studied in a room in 14 Mila Street, and one ghetto diarist noted, “Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin continues within the ghetto walls.”

With the onset of the mass deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp in the summer of 1942, the Kozoglover Rav found employment at the famous Schultz shops, where the askan Reb Avraham Hendel arranged for many Polish rabbanim to be employed in a futile attempt to save their lives. Sharing Rav Frommer’s bench in the workshop making shoes for the Nazis was the Piacezna Rebbe, Rav Klonymous Kalman Shapira, and Rav Menachem Ziemba. With their beards and peyos shorn and their torn clothing, the only inkling to their greatness was their constant Torah discussions that accompanied their labor the entire day.

When the SS renewed the deportations in the spring of 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising broke out on April 19, which coincided with the Pesach holiday. Rav Frommer was among those caught by the Nazis and transported to Majdanek, where he was promptly sent to the gas chambers on 27 Nissan.

In the Warsaw ghetto, Rav Frommer shared a workbench with Rav Meachem Ziemba and the Piacezna Rebbe. Who would have imagined that in the midst of the horrors, Rav Frommer would establish an underground yeshivah?

A Finer Future

All too soon, it’s time to come back to the here and now. Gone are Lublin and Sosnowiec, and the bustling streets of Warsaw. But while he’s connected to the past, Rav Mandelbaum barely has time for the present. “So much to do, and there are always more seforim, more projects,” he says. There are so many more manuscripts and biographies to bring to light, but now, he’s waiting for results.

“I’m hoping that readers of the Eretz Tzvi’s biography will see who he was and be eager to study his Torah as well. Following the publication of my books about Rav Meir Shapiro and Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, there was a renewed interest in the study of daf yomi. I consider it a special zechus to have had a part in that.”

An important facet of future projects is translating his history books into English. The story of the Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin contingent in Shanghai has already been translated, and a collection of inspirational stories of spiritual heroism during the Holocaust is in the process. He hopes the English-speaking world, too, will be inspired and motivated by a biography of Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frommer, bringing readers into another time and place, within the virtual walls of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin and other holy spaces that were his world.

For Rav Mandelbaum, who had a rare opportunity to meet people who had seen the Sfas Emes and others from that world, and who had grown up in a home where people like Rav Menachem Ziemba and the Kozoglover Rav were omnipresent, by sharing his stories, we too can connect to the rich heritage that once was. With that connection we ensure that the glorious past becomes a conduit to the present, as we build the edifice of the Jewish People to an even finer future. —


Rav Mandelbaum expresses his deepest appreciation to renowned askan Mr. Shlomo Werdiger — whose father, Reb Nechemiah, was a close talmid of the Eretz Tzvi in his hometown of Sosnowiec and later in Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin — for his generous support in the publication of this important book; and to Reb Feivel Smiles of Beit Shemesh, whose devotion to the Torah and legacy of the Eretz Tzvi is unmatched.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 915)

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