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Forged by Fire

Rachel Ginsberg

Fifty years ago this week, the fire that burned down a dormitory in the Telshe Yeshivah and took the lives of two bochurim threatened to unravel two decades of dedicated toil. Would the yeshivah, built with the steely determination of two roshei yeshivah who lost everything to the Nazis, survive this latest decree?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

old papersIt’s the story of hundreds of boys whose lives would be transformed by both tragedy and perseverance. It’s the story of a thriving yeshivah rebuilt on American soil, confronted with a calamity that could have brought it down if not for the tenacity and backbone of its rosh yeshivah. But it’s also the story of four roommates — friends and cousins — whose destinies were intertwined within the flames that separated life from death.

Fifty years ago this week — 5 Teves, 5723, January 1, 1963 — was a day of judgment for the Telshe Yeshivah inWickliffe,Ohio. The yeshivah, built on the shards of Holocaust devastation as its leaders shook off the horrors of their past and with steely determination rebuilt a thriving Torah center, was challenged with a major blow that threatened to undo 21 years of dedicated toil.

In 1940, Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch and Rav Mordechai Katz (“Reb Mottel”) — son and son-in-law of the famed Telshe [pronounced Telz] rosh yeshivah Rav Yosef Leib Bloch — managed to travel out of Soviet-occupied Lithuania and make their way to the US in the hope of somehow saving the world-renowned yeshivah by transferring its students and faculty to America. Both had to leave their wives and children behind, their fates unknown. At the end of 1941, they were joined by Rav Chaim Stein, who had led a group of Telshe students in a daring escape out ofLithuania through Siberia, and reestablished the Rabbinical College of Telshe inCleveland,Ohio.

Only two years later did Rav Katz and Rav Bloch discover that all the remaining students, faculty and their entire families had been murdered when the Nazis overran the area in 1941. Reb Mottel, who lost his first wife and a child in 1930, had remarried and had another eight children. Now he faced the staggering loss of his entire family — his wife and ten children. Despite their devastating losses, Rav Bloch and Rav Katz refused to crumble, recreating not only the yeshivah but also establishing the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland and theYavnehSchoolfor Girls. Rav Mottel Katz, who remarried and had another three children, became head of the Telshe Yeshivah when Rav Bloch passed away in 1954. In those two decades, Telshe — which had moved to a sprawling campus in the Cleveland suburb of Wickliffe — became the crown of American yeshivos; boys arrived from all over the US, Europe, Israel, South America, and South Africa. And Reb Mottel, a master educator and forward-thinking communal activist catapulted into a new and foreign American culture, nevertheless managed to bridge the gaps with his students and inspire them in the old-world style of Telshe.

Now it looked like it was all going up in smoke.

 

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