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Diary of No Despair

Machla Abramovitz

This past 27 Teves was a significant yahrtzeit for family and admirers of Montreal’s beloved former chief rabbi Rav Pinchas Hirschprung, renewing their connection through his previously unknown Yiddish memoir

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

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BELOVED BY ALL “It would have been worth opening the yeshivah just for Pinchas from Dukla,” said Rav Meir Shapiro ztz”l, referring to his prized student who knew all 2,711 pages of Gemara by heart when he was yet a teenager. A young Reb Pinchas (left) with two friends, Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, late 1920s; the Hirschprung study in Montreal (Photos: Moishy Spira, Montreal)

N ineteen years ago, the Montreal Jewish community mourned the passing of its much loved and esteemed chief rabbi, the venerated Rav Pinchas Hirschprung. He was a man renowned for his Talmudic brilliance and eidetic memory; he was leader of a Bais Yaakov and a rosh yeshivah, and the rebbi of his younger years — Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin founder Rav Meir Shapiro ztz”l — once remarked that “it would have been worth opening the yeshivah… just for Pinchas from Dukla.” He enjoyed a special relationship with the gedolim of the previous generation, and especially with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who had his own talmidim forward their sh’eilos to the gaon of Montreal.

But most of all, he was known for his sterling character and purity of soul — his humility, kindness, and compassion were legendary. “You never have to ask me to do a favor. Just tell me what to do for you,” he would often remark.

Nineteen might not be one of those round landmark numbers, but this year 27 Teves was a significant yahrtzeit for family members and admirers who were able to connect to Rav Hirschprung’s special persona on a new level. Thanks to a largely unknown Yiddish memoir Rav Hirschprung wrote as a young man, his unique voice still reverberates — and now that the manuscript has been translated into English and released as a book called The Vale of Tears, that voice is accessible to everyone.

The memoir, which chronicles the years 1939–1941 at the onslaught of World War II, details Rav Hirschprung’s journey as a brilliant 27-year-old Torah scholar from his hometown of Dukla in southeastern Galicia, across Nazi-occupied and Soviet-occupied Poland, Lithuania, and the Soviet Union to Japan, Shanghai, and eventually to Canada, securing passage on the last boat to leave Shanghai before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He wrote the journal in 1944, three years after arriving in Montreal, and although the memories were fresh, the full extent of the tragedy was still unknown — including the murder of his parents, sisters, and his beloved grandfather Rav Dovid Tzvi Sehmann (known as the Minchas Soles), Dukla’s esteemed rav and Rav Hirschprung’s primary teacher.

It’s a memoir he felt compelled to write, despite the discouragement of some Torah scholars who believed that this kind of honest emotional writing was demeaning to a talmid chacham. He disagreed. “I told myself that it was in no way demeaning for a Torah student to fulfill the commandment to ‘remember what Amalek did to you’ by describing at least a bit of what I’d seen with my own eyes,” the Rav once told a family member.

Rav Hirschprung’s The Vale of Tears, which was translated by Vivian Felson and edited and published by the Azrieli Foundation, is more than just a chronological journey across territorial borders; it’s a metaphysical journey over time. The universe the Rav portrays is not black-and-white; it’s one in which gradations within the human spirit are recognized, while spiritual insights are shared at opportune times and from the most unlikely of prophets — such as the Christian woman who, when watching the Jewish exodus from Dukla, answered the Nazis, “The Jews’ G-d is here. He who took revenge on Pharaoh, Haman, Titus, and Sancheriv… will also take revenge on you.”

It’s a deeply personal memoir. But in the hands of this master storyteller, it’s not only a testament to a lost era, but to the human spirit that is capable of transcending physical and emotional adversities, terror, despondency, and disillusionment, when an abiding faith in G-d and commitment to one’s higher purpose remains one’s driving principle.

Despite Rav Hirschprung being such a private person, daughter Carmella Nussbaum is not surprised her father wrote these deeply personal and revealing memoirs. The war had impacted him profoundly: He told her mother — Rebbetzin Alte Chaya a”h — that there wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t think about the war. It was, therefore, something he needed to do for himself. But what was surprising to her and her siblings is that Rav Hirschprung never spoke about the book; in fact, most of them didn’t even know it existed until a close friend brought a copy to the shivah house after their father’s petirah.

Montreal’s former chief rabbi Rav Pinchas Hirschprung. “He loved people. He loved life, and he loved you for who you were,” says his daughter Carmella

In many ways, the book confirmed what they already knew about their father: how meaningful prayer was in his life, how — surrounded by death and destruction — he would find comfort in learning Torah, and that even as a young man, he had that heart of gold they all recognized. Its immediacy, though, better helped them appreciate just how difficult those years were for him. “How hard it was saying goodbye to his parents. How much he loved his grandfather. His memories are so raw and real,” daughter Rochel Newman says.

Since she first read the memoir, Sossy Hirschprung has been similarly taken by the loving way in which her father portrays his community, and by how much the Jews of Dukla loved her great-grandfather, who had impacted her father so profoundly throughout his life. “My father said that before any major event in his life, his grandfather came to him in his dreams.”

Over the last ten years, beginning a month before his yahrtzeit, she and her sister Rochel reread their father’s book. “Every time I read it, it touches me the same way it did when I first picked it up,” Mrs. Newman says.

Everyone Out

Rav Hirschprung was born in the city of Dukla in 1912. Gifted with a compassionate heart, brilliant mind, and photographic memory, he became a primary student of Rav Meir Shapiro — founder of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin and the Daf Yomi movement, who once said of him that while still a youth, he already knew all 2,711 dapim of Gemara by heart. By the time he was a teenager he had already written two seforim, and when Rav Shapiro passed away in 1933, it was Rav Hirschprung who would test the prospective talmidim — required to know 200 dapim of Talmud by heart to gain entrance.

Rav Hirschprung married Canadian-born Alte Chaya Stern, daughter of Montreal’s G-d-fearing shochet, in 1947 (they had nine children together), and served as the chief rabbi of Montreal from 1969 until his passing in 1998. He founded the Bais Yaakov of Montreal back in the 1950s that now carries his name, and he also served as rosh yeshivah of Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim in Montreal.

Although he arrived on safer shores and was a builder of one of North America’s largest Jewish communities, the war years left an indelible patch on his heart — and the tragedies he witnessed, together with his own personal miraculous salvation, were always at the forefront of his motivation to rebuild a lost Torah world. “If I survive this war, I’ll dedicate my whole life to Torah,” he pledged when he was on the run. And he did.

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