My Grandfather, R’ Pesach Cohen zt’l was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in October of 1921. His parents emigrated to America as children; his mother Chaya Sara Kronenberg at 7 years old and his father Moshe Cohen at 9 years old. His father attended Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph (RJJ) and his parents were among the minority of Jewish immigrants who, with a lot of Mesiras Nefesh remained Shomer Shabbos. My Grandfather, his older brother Herbie and his younger brother Ivan attended RJJ elementary school. Both of his brothers served in the U.S. Armed Forces during WWII.
Before the Holocaust, the most advanced Yeshivos were in Europe, and most Americans did not have the opportunity to study in these Yeshivos. There were a select number of Americans who did travel to Europe to study in these Yeshivos. One of the greatest of these Yeshivos was the Mirrer Yeshiva in Mir, Poland. Bereleya Gordon, an American from Cincinnati had been studying in the Mir and returned to America in 1935 to marry. He planned to return to the Mir with his American wife from New York to continue his studies. While in New York he recruited two young boys to attend the Mir Yeshiva, one of them was my Grandfather who was 13 at the time, and his friend, Shmuel Scheinberg (whose older brother R’ Chaim Pinchus Scheinberg was already in the Mir). His father was not anxious to send him to Poland and only agreed after his mother arranged to pay the expenses of $40 a month. In addition to the financial sacrifice, this required even greater emotional sacrifice on my Great-Grandmother’s part, as my Grandfather was going for a lengthy period of time and would not see his family for many years. On the other hand, my Grandfather had no qualms. He thought it was an excellent way to avoid math class.
With Bereleya Gordon as chaperone, my Grandfather and his friend Shmuel departed for Poland in August of 1935. They traveled by ship to Paris and stayed there over Shabbos. The only available kosher food was bread and sardines. From Paris they traveled by train to Warsaw through Germany, which was already under Hitler’s control. To reach the Mir they had to take a horse and buggy from Warsaw. When crossing the border to Germany, the German border guards confiscated two of the three shavers that my Grandfather was bringing for others, and a Mickey Mouse watch that his parents had taken from his younger brother to give to him.
Living conditions in Mir, Belarus were very primitive and like a step back in time for someone coming from New York. The town was centered around the Yeshiva. The Yeshiva was the only building with electricity and indoor plumbing. There were no dormitories and the bachorim were hosted by families who were paid for hosting them. The Americans in the Mir received money from home and were relatively wealthy compared to the Eastern European bachorim who were supported by the Yeshiva. As a result my Grandfather was placed in the nicest homes and roomed with the top bachorim. Most students had only one change of clothing. My Grandfather appeared to be a pampered American because he arrived with a steamer trunk filled with clothing and other basics. Years later when asked why he did not think of going home when he saw the conditions in the Mir, he responded that the possibility of returning did not even occur to him.
At 14, my Grandfather was the youngest boy in the Yeshiva and his Torah background was limited compared to the other bachorim. He was paired with older students who served as his tutors. These private Rebbeim were paid with money sent by my Great-Grandmother. Among the Rebbeim he studied under were R’ Chaim Wysokier who later became the Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva Beth HaTalmud in New York & R’ Yitzchok Shemshilevitz, later known as Rabbi Simon who was a teacher in Maimonides Yeshiva in Boston. After a short period of time in the Mir, my Grandfather contracted pneumonia, probably as a result of the harsh living conditions, and was bedridden for a few months. He did not inform his parents because he did not want them to worry and insist that he come home. The Yeshiva sent him to a doctor in Vilna where he was also privileged to meet the Gadol Hador, R’ Chaim Ozer Grodzenski zt"l.
On August 30, 1939, in anticipation of the German invasion, Poland mobilized its’ army and the American Consulate advised all American citizens to leave Poland. The Americans in the Mir left that day for Vilna with the expectation that they would soon return. Thinking that Poland would easily defeat Germany and the war would end, each American took only a small valise with them, leaving all their possessions behind. My Grandfather left all the sefarim that he had accumulated in the Yeshiva. In one of his letters home, he writes how suddenly they left Mir and he regrets not having had the opportunity to speak with his Rebbe before leaving, however, he expects to return to Yeshiva soon. On September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland, and WWII began.
From Vilna my Grandfather traveled with his friend Shmuel Scheinberg and about 15 other Americans to Riga, Latvia. Realizing they would have to return to America, they went to Stockholm, Sweden where they planned to embark on a ship to New York. When they arrived in Sweden they were put in jail overnight as they did not yet have visas. The local citizens were very kind and brought them a variety of food, however, they were only able to eat the fruits and vegetables.
They left Stockholm right before Sukkos on the Gripsholm, a Swedish-American Line boat. It had a big Red Cross, and at night the lights were turned off to avoid attack. An American bachur, Mordechai Yoffe, arranged to bring supplies on board for building a sukkah, and with the Captain's permission they built a canvas sukkah on the deck. The sailors were convinced that the sukkah would blow away. They arrived in New York after Sukkos, in October of 1939. My Grandfather was 19 at the time and had not seen his family for five years.
There were few Yeshivos in New York at the time. The Americans from the Mir split into different groups and went to various Yeshivos. My Grandfather and his group spent time in Yeshivos Chaim Berlin, Chofetz Chaim and in a Shul on the West Side of Manhattan. My Grandfather, along with some of the group then went to a Yeshiva in Boston founded and headed by R’ Joseph B. Solovetchik zt"l. Some of the other members of the group began a Yeshiva in White Plains. In 1943, when R’ Aharon Kotler arrived in America, he began a Yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey with 13 students, including six married students. My Grandfather and Shmuel Scheinberg were among this group of 13. My Grandfather was the first bachur of Lakewood Yeshiva to get engaged, and the wedding date was set for March 25, 1944, after the z’man. When my Grandparents got married there were 17 Talmidim learning in Lakewood Yeshiva. Today there are more than four thousand Talmidim in Lakewood Yeshiva.
Thank you to my Grandmother, who allowed me to interview her and provided many of the pictures and letters in the Virtual Gallery.
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