A Trip Back in Time: The Mirer Yeshiva in 1937-38
by Nava Cooper
(First appeared in print in July 19, 2006, in Hamodia
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
“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
“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
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.”
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
Lehmann’s paintings can be viewed at The Living Torah Museum,
1601 41st Street, Brooklyn, NY, (718) 686-8174.