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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Rabbi Kret's Third Yahrzeit and "Wasilkower Broyt"

Since tonight (19th of Shevat) marks the third yahrzeit of Rabbi Kret's passing, I would like to note it by recalling an aspect of life in the Bialystoker yeshiva that Rabbi Kret shared with us. It is hard for us to imagine the poverty of that some of the yeshivas endured in the 1930s, and by extension, what the bochrim (students) who studied in these yeshivas endured as well. For Rabbi Kret this was epitomized by the bread that was given to the students in Bialystok.

Before speaking about this bread, I should say that Rabbi Kret didn't go to Bialystok simply because it was the local yeshiva. Rabbi Kret was raised in a Hasidic family that was associated with the Gerer rebbe. Rabbi Kret decided not to follow this path, but consciously chose to follow the route of Lithuanian yeshiva scholarship. It is interesting that Rabbi Kret chose the Bialystoker yeshiva, since when he was there, it had become the  the flagship of the Musar movement (the yeshiva in Novardok was the first institutional home of the Musar movement, which was founded in the nineteenth century by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. When Novardok came under the rule of the Soviet Union, the faculty and students fled to Poland and reestablished their yeshiva in Bialystok). When I asked Rabbi Kret about why he studied in Bialystok, if I recall correctly, he told me that he was interested in the learning, and not necessarily the Musar.

But back to the bread. In Bialystok, the bread that was supplied to the students was apparently produced in Wasilkow, a small town about four miles northeast of Bialystok. Rabbi Kret said that when the bread came, it was inedible, and the students had to let it sit for a while. When they did eat it, something in it gave them a burning sensation. Rabbi Kret thought that the flour was stretched by addition of sawdust, which is what gave the burning sensation. Despite the deprivation, Rabbi Kret continued in his studies and was very successful. Rabbi Kret thrived in Bialystok, and became the second in command of the school. (The photo above, from Wikipedia, is of the Great Synagogue in Bialystok, which was destroyed during the Holocaust). He eventually left to return to his hometown of Ostrow Mazowiecka, where he established a branch of the yeshiva.

During the war, Rabbi Kret was arrested by the Soviets and was incarcerated in Siberia. After the war, he taught in or headed the yeshiva in the Zeilsheim DP camp in Frankfurt, Germany. In 1949 or 1950, he came to the United States, and became the rabbi of the Old Broadway Synagogue, and the rest, so they say, is history. The thing which sustained Rabbi Kret in all of these places was his love of Torah. Anyone who spoke with Rabbi Kret could see the fire of Torah as it burned in his eyes. The Torah gave so much nourishment that even the Wasilkower broyt, bad as it was, was tolerable.

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