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A Trip Back in Time: The Mirer Yeshiva in 1937-38
by Nava Cooper

(First appeared in print in July 19, 2006, in Hamodia Magazine Section.)

On a frigid day in Berlin in January 1937, a well-dressed 21-year-old Swedish bachur stepped off a train station platform and onto the Paris-Berlin-Warsaw-Moscow-Vladivostock Express train.  He settled into his compartment and watched quietly as his compartment began to fill with a cross-section of the “new Germany,” both with and without SS uniforms, swastikas, medals and other strange decorations.

As the train approached the Polish border and the outskirts of Hitler’s territory, the bachur became bold.  Surrounded by Nazis on all sides (at least two of whom wore black SS uniforms with all the trimmings), the young Swede pulled out the latest issue of the only Jewish paper still being printed in Germany at the time – the German-language Judische Rundschau

It didn’t take long for his fellow travelers to react once they noticed the bachur’s reading material.  He observed with grim smugness as they regarded him with disgust and trooped out of the compartment, one by one. 

But the young man’s thoughts were on his destination: the shtetl Mir and its famous yeshiva, where he would spend the next year and a half learning Torah, absorbing the Mir’s unique flavor of Yiddishkeit, and forever altering the religious life of his family.

Bert Lehmann, the young man from Sweden, is now 90 years old and living in Manhattan.  He has been an artist for much of his life, and an exhibit of his paintings of the Mirer shtetl and Yeshiva is on display at the Living Torah Museum in Boro Park.  He spoke with Hamodia about his experience in Mir, and tells his story through interview questions and excerpts from an essay he wrote many years ago about his memories of Mir.

A Fateful Decision

Born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1916, Bert Lehmann spent the years from 1928-1933 in Hamburg, Germany.  His father had moved the family to Hamburg in order to give his sons a strong Torah education – something that was not available in Sweden.  The boys learned at the Talmud Torah Realschule in Hamburg until 1933, when a sharp increase in government persecution of Jews prompted the Lehmann family to return to Sweden.

Lehmann spent the years between 1933 and 1937 in art school, to a minor degree helping with his father’s business, and in religious Zionist kibbutzim in Denmark and Sweden.  But he recognized that physical preparation for Eretz Yisroel was not enough, and he knew that he was now ready to learn Torah in earnest.  But where could he go at such a turbulent time?

The answer came in the form of a longtime friend and classmate, Walter (Ze’ev) Gotthold, who was learning in the Mirer Yeshiva. 

It didn’t take Walter too much time winning me over to the idea of joining him in Poland. Now the “real” battle began.  It was not only a question of how to get there – through Germany, and with no air travel in those days – but to convince my parents that “this trip is necessary.”  Reports about a record-breaking harsh winter in Poland didn’t make things easier; articles about roaming hordes of attacking wolves in villages gave me depressing thoughts.  But my determination prevailed.

“I went in January, 1937, by train from Stockholm, Sweden, through Nazi Germany, and all through Poland,” says Lehmann.  “I spent one night in the Warsaw Ghetto.  And then it was on to shtetl Mir, which was not too far from Minsk in Ukraine.”

A Night in the Warsaw Ghetto

Not long after Lehmann revealed his identity through his choice of a Jewish newspaper, the train screeched to a halt at the Polish border station.  Noting that the Polish border police and customs officials were “polite and refreshing” after the oppressive atmosphere in Germany, Lehmann settled back into his seat as the train lurched again into motion. 

Things changed drastically as I watched through the window: Primitive villages, farther and farther apart from each other.  The countryside became endlessly flat; a bleak winter landscape.  It grew darker the closer we came to the Polish capital, and I grew tired and apprehensive. Would the chaver [from our religious Zionist movement] really be at the station to pick me up?

The chaver was there, indeed, shouting Lehmann’s name “like somebody selling hot dogs,” Lehmann relates.  His new friend was dressed like a Polish or Russian farmhand in high leather boots, a big fur coat, and a cap with a visor – ideal apparel for the Polish weather, which was well below freezing.  Lehmann’s first instinct was to find a nice hotel for the night, but that was not to be.

“Oh, no, you cannot afford that,” he said.  “I’ll take you to a place for the night in the Jewish section.  It won’t cost you much.”  He took me, of course, for a penniless chalutz.  I was too tired and cold to argue with him.  We boarded a streetcar packed with people.

“Watch out for ganovim,” he warned me.

“Very kind of him,” I thought in a frozen daze.  As the streetcar careened through Warsaw, all I could see of the dimly-lit street was that the neighborhoods became poorer and more desolate with every turn.

Once off the streetcar, the pair walked to a house, in through a high gate and into a large, well-lit room with at least 20-30 people of all types – but mostly shady.  Lehmann was directed to his bed, one of many lined up against the wall, and he wondered how he and his belongings would make it through the night.  Tucking his valuables under his pillow, he managed to go to sleep even in the bright glare of electric bulbs.

All of a sudden I woke up.  A face was bent over me, and it belonged to a man who was ridiculing me for going to a yeshiva.  “He is a meshuggener,” he repeated again and again, pointing at me.  The only thing in my mind was, “How will I ever live through this night – and get to the train on time?” The poor man finally left me in peace and I did fall asleep again.

The next morning, Lehmann awoke bright and early, davened with tefillin (to the amazement of his fellow “guests”), and had breakfast.  His chaver appeared right on time and accompanied him once again on the streetcar and to the train station.  Lehmann thanked his friend for his help and boarded the train for the last leg of his journey.

A Dramatic Arrival

The long trip through a bleak, desolate countryside was punctuated only by stops at shabby, rundown stations.  The train halted a few kilometers before the final station in Poland, and a lone figure boarded.  To Lehmann’s delight, it was his friend Walter Gotthold – the very person who had convinced Lehmann to make the trip would now be his traveling companion on the way to Mir.

Once off the train and out of customs, Gotthold led Lehmann to a shabby-looking wooden building where he was introduced to the town Rabbi.  There he witnessed his friend and the Rabbi haggling over the price of a ride on a horsedrawn sled which would take them to Mir.  A price was reached, a fur-clad “balagoleh” (ba’al agalah, or wagon driver) appeared, and the two young men were led to a haggard old horse hitched to a low straw-filled sled.  The balagoleh let them slip into giant fur coats for their ride, which would last several hours in sub-zero weather, and tucked them into the sled with their baggage.  To Lehmann’s amazement, the balagoleh walked beside the sled most of the way.

The sled glided through the cold, clear, starry, and moonlit night, past small forests, lonely farmhouses and packs of wild wolves.  “I don’t recall seeing any other sleds, cars, or human beings on our entire way that night,” Lehmann says.  A shot of “the rawest, strongest vodka available on earth” cheered the young men as they huddled in the frigid air.

Finally they came out of the woods and up onto a hill – and there, in the valley below, they saw the lights of the shtetl Mir.  It was exactly midnight.  And at that precise moment, the electric lights disappeared. 

“What happened?” I asked Walter with utter amazement. 

“No electricity after 12 o’clock,” he informed me, as if it were the most natural thing that the city lights should stop functioning.  But the moon helped us down the hill to the door of the nearest house before coming into town: my new home!

First Impressions of Mir

Lehmann awoke the next morning in a room in a one-story Russian-style wooden house. He soon met his roommate, a young man named Heiri Erlanger from Lucerne, Switzerland.  He gave Lehmann some quick tips about the daily routines in Mirer Yeshiva life, and soon the newcomer found out just how different the shtetl was from what he was used to in Sweden.

“It was like going back in history,” he recalls.  “Very primitive, just a small town with no running water, no toilets.  For me to come there from a highly cultivated, modern country like Sweden, it was physically very difficult! But I managed.”

From his boarding house on the outskirts of town, Lehmann made his way into the center of town – and the Mirer Yeshiva itself.

The walk over the low-lying bridge, up the sloping main road, uphill towards the main market square, past the big town church and into the courtyard of the Yeshiva building…was all so dreamlike.  I felt like I was 500 years back in history; [like the town was] a piece cut out, dangling in time.  How could I ever become adjusted and be part of this setting?

As I came into the Yeshiva building, I was hit by real panic: a giant hall, part synagogue, part rail road station, with several hundred young people sitting, standing at shtenders, yelling, singing, gesticulating, all in an atmosphere like a beehive. 

Out of the tumult, Lehmann’s friend Walter Gotthold appeared and helped him to arrange his daily schedule.

“They had a system that every yeshiva bachur had to be in three different places every day: one place just for sleeping, where we lived; one place just for eating; and one place to learn, which was the main yeshiva building,” says Lehmann. 

The food in the shtetl was “plain, very plain,” Lehmann remembers.  “Chicken, potatoes, chicken soup, eggs for lunch or breakfast.   It was very simple and very poor.”

The simple fare did not agree with young Lehmann at first, and he developed a rash and other ailments.  Gotthold and his friends decided that there was only one place in Mir for der Schwed (the Swede) to eat: the home of Bas Sheva Leshinsky and family.  Mrs. Leshinsky’s cooking soon had Lehmann feeling better, and he and the Leshinskys became lifelong friends. 

“I helped the Leshinskys come to New York, and I arranged an apartment for them in Williamsburg in Brooklyn,” says Lehmann.  “They came to Shanghai and then to the United States… I am still attached to them even now.  Their descendants know my family and my grandchildren.”

The Townspeople and the Bachurim

Within the little town of Mir and its environs, there were a little over 5,000 people: 3,000 local Jews, 500 Yeshiva students, 2,000 Roman and Greek Orthodox Christians, and a small group of Muslim Tartars.  Lehmann soon learned that the townspeople of Mir were very different from the bachurim who had come to learn in the Yeshiva from all over the world.

“It was a quite different atmosphere between the Jewish townspeople and the people who learned in the Mir,” he says.  “You see, the townspeople were, of course, poor people.  They saw talmidim coming from all over Europe, from America and Canada, and these bachurim were dressed in a more fashionable way than the poor people in the shtetl.  All the talmidim were more or less well-dressed, with ties and hats, the styles that were popular at that time in Europe and America.”

Every Monday and Thursday, gentile farmers from outside the town would come in with horse drawn wagons filled with their wares: produce, grain, live chickens, milk, eggs, berries, and “whatever animal could be sold.”

From my vantage point, my “home” outside town, I could observe [the gentiles’] doings at close range.  The women carried their shoes or high boots over their shoulders until they came to our house just before the bridge, entering town.  They saved their shoes for the “big city,” and walked, who knows how many miles, barefoot…  In wintertime they walked with boots on hard-packed snow; spring and fall, the wagon wheels and many feet and legs sank in the mire of “blottes,” which simply cannot be described.

On Shabbos, Lehmann recalls, “The stores in the Jewish part of town were all closed. Even the people in town who were not exactly Orthodox closed their businesses.”

Yeshiva Life

Lehmann found the learning to be “very intense,” he says, “but since I came from Sweden and didn’t have much of a background in learning, I first had to learn to read Rashi and to understand Yiddish.  It was difficult, but of course, my staying in Mir for only a year and a half wasn’t enough to make me a talmid chacham.  I received a basic understanding and feeling for Yiddishkeit, and that was more important for me than anything else.”

He remembers Harav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel zt”l, the Rosh Yeshiva at the time, and Harav Yechezkel Levenstein, zt”l.  “Rav Levenstein was the mussar mashgiach,” Lehmann recalls, “and the bachurim used to call him ‘Mashgiach Yechezkel.’”


Lehmann may not have had time to become a talmid chacham while in Mir, but the short time he spent there had a tremendous effect that has lasted throughout his long life. 

“When I came back home to Sweden,” Lehmann says, “I was so deeply impressed and so deeply felt the ruach of the Mir that I was able to give that to my brothers, and they continued in a yeshivishe style of learning.  Through this trip, I brought real Yiddishkeit to our family.  I’ll tell you frankly, if I would never have made that trip, I and my brothers would probably have ended up with non-Jewish wives in Sweden.  And that changed the whole family structure, even my parents. We had German Orthodoxy at home but that was a far cry from the Orthodoxy of the Mir.”

Lehmann’s paintings can be viewed at The Living Torah Museum, 1601 41st Street, Brooklyn, NY, (718) 686-8174.


The author would like to express her appreciation to Mr. Lehmann for his time and generous assistance with this article, and for sharing his story through his essays and paintings.


Reprinted with permission of Hamodia and author Nava Cooper.

Mir Yeshiva Links on this site
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updated May 2010


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