Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman
RebElchanan was born in Birz, Lithuania. He studied in the Telshe Yeshiva under Rabbi Shimon Shkop. In 1897 he met Rabbi Chaim Brisker and became his disciple. RebElchanan was deeply influenced by both but eventually developed his own approach.
A new era began for RebElchanan when he met the Chofetz Chaim in 1907. Though he had already served with noted success as Yeshiva head of Amtchislav and was now a mature man of 32, he joined the KodoshimKollel of the Chofetz Chaim. RebElchanan viewed the Chofetz Chaim as a living Torah and trembled in his presence. The Chofetz Chaim became RebElchanan’s lifetime role model. In 1910 he became a Rosh Yeshiva in Brisk until the outbreak of the war in 1914. In 1921, he became head of the Yeshiva Ohel Torah in Baranovitch, where he remained for the rest of his life. Because of his great influence the Yeshiva grew and, in spite of its abysmal poverty, attracted many hundreds of disciples.
Besides his role as yeshiva head, RebElchanan was deeply involved in communal matters, and was active in Agudas Israel. In addition to his lectures and Talmudic writings, he was also a thinker and interpreter of contemporary events and his ideas were published in a book of essays (KovetzMaamorim). He maintained that just as the Torah provides guidance in strictly halachic matters, it also provides illumination of the era in which we live.
He visited America in 1939 and though, he could have remained and avoided the imminent catastrophe, he never considered it as a possibility. He felt that he must return to his Yeshiva and be with his students.
While on a visit to Kovno the Germans declared war on Russia and RebElchanan was unable to return to the yeshiva. On July 6, 1941 RebElchanan was studying in the house of R. AvrohomGrodzensky, in the company of a group of scholars, when four armed Lithuanians came in shouting and taunting. It was obvious that the end was near and RebElchanan spoke his last words:
“Heaven apparently considers us righteous people, for it wants us to atone with our bodies for Jewry as a whole. So we must repent now…if we repent, we will thereby save the remaining Jews, our brothers and sisters, so that they will be able to carry on as the remnant of Jewry”.
The Chazon Ish once testified that RebElchanan totally fulfilled the principle “I placed G-d before me at all times”. In a generation renowned for its many great RosheiYeshivot, he was distinguished not only for his great learning but for the impact his personality made on his students