The arrival of ten Yeshiva students last month from the Chabad Yeshiva in Montreal to the newly formed branch of Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim in Warsaw is a milestone by any measure, particularly for a city so badly scarred by recent history. But for Rabbi Moshe Eliyahu Gerlitzky, who is among the founders of the Montreal Yeshiva, it’s an historic event of epic proportions, closing a circle of nearly a century.
Gerlitzky’s early Yeshiva years were spent in Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch in Warsaw– the original one, founded in the 1920’s as a branch of Chabad’s Russian-originated Yeshiva system of the same name. From 1932 until just before WWII, Gerlitzky was one of 400 students, in a thriving Yeshiva situated in the heart of an equally thriving Jewish Warsaw.
With the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Warsaw Yeshiva disbanded as its students scrambled to find means of escape from the war-torn city. On the advice and blessing of Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneerson, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, himself trapped in the bombardment, Gerlitzky somehow made his way to Russian-occupied Poland. Miraculously granted exit visas to Japan along with a group of eight fellow Yeshiva students, he arrived as a refugee in Montreal in 1942. The “nine students,” who created a singular sensation on arrival in Canada, set about forming a small branch of their Yeshiva in the new world. Today, Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim in Montreal enjoys an enrollment of several hundred students, and, last week, ten of its finest made their way across the ocean to pick up, as it were, where the Lubavitch Yeshiva in Warsaw left off.
Housed in a comfortable new building that’s just a short walk from the site of the original Yeshiva, the students seem to be closing a circle, but as Gerlitzky puts it, this is really just the beginning. “Warsaw is once again a big city with many Jews,” he says. “From these students, a tremendous amount of Jewish activity can be generated for the entire city.”
Indeed, according to Rabbi Shalom Ber Stambler, the Chabad Rabbi behind the organization of the Yeshiva and the recently opened Chabad center in Warsaw, the students’ agenda in Warsaw goes well beyond a rigorous full-day learning schedule.
Currently, Yeshiva students conduct three weekly classes on Torah and Chasidic thought with about 20 people in attendance at each. Evenings are spent studying with individuals, and Shabbat is spent bringing the joy and spirit of the day to far-flung towns and villages. “Together with the Chabad activities now operating in Warsaw, all of which are coordinated with Poland’s Chief Rabbi Mordechai Schurdrich, the establishment of the yeshiva here is a big step toward awakening Polish Jewry,” says Stambler.
For Rabbi Gerlitzky and others who remember the Yeshiva’s glory days in Warsaw, it’s not so much an awakening as a restoration, and a fitting tribute to the hundreds of Yeshiva students who perished along with most of European Jewry in the devastation of the holocaust. As a new generation of Yeshiva students brings the sounds of Torah study back to the city, the future of Warsaw’s Jewish community looks brighter than ever.