Chapter 1
Early Childhood, Family & Education

Chapter 2
Religious Life

Chapter 3

Reb Yechezkel Leibsohn Hacohen

Reb Elye Krottinger

Rebbi Leibzig Lipkin

Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchok Hurwitz

Chapter 4

Chapter 5
Kretinga & Neighborhood

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8
Emigration & Journey


Chapter 3 : Personalities

Subsections :  Reb Yechezkel Leibsohn Hacohen  | Reb Elye Krottinger  | Rebbi Leibzig Lipkin  | Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchok Hurwitz


Reb Yechezkel Leibsohn Hacohen   [back to top]

One might be surprised that my father, who was an outstanding teacher, did not himself undertake our Hebrew education. He might have done so in the case of my eldest brothers, (of which I was too young to remember) but there were, though, sound reasons for this seeming neglect by him. In the first case, father, to my knowledge, has never been a Melammed, which calling was known as an instructor of young boys. He did, in fact, carry on the profession of a Hebrew teacher at certain periods when, due to some circumstances, he was obliged to do so. But whenever he was engaged in teaching, he confirmed himself to the instruction of teenagers. That was to such who had already passed the preliminary stages of their Hebrew education , and who wished to continue with it at an advanced level, such as Talmudical and allied studies, as well as Hebrew Grammar.

I knew several of my father's pupils, some of whom had been engaged in secular studies, concurrently with their Hebrew and religious studies by taking a correspondence course; mainly with the view of going in for an academic career, chiefly that of medicine. I accidentally met two of them, after they had become medical practitioners. One was Dr. Bernstein, who practiced in the East End of London, whom I met at a Zionist Congress at Basle, in 1903. The other one was an eminent physician in Berlin, whom I consulted there in 1906. It was a great suprise to me when in the course of the conversation, I mentioned that I was born in Lithuania, in the town of Krottingen; and he told me that he had recieved his Hebrew education there from Reb Yecheskel Leibsohn! That was our family name before my father changed it to Cohen, after his arrival in Sunderland.

The two outstanding pupils of my father were Rabbi Mendel Yitzchok Behrman and Rabbi Medalie. Rabbi Behrman and his family suffered considerable vicissitudes of fortune during the greater part of their sojourn in England. He served as Rav of three different communities and only found his right niche in Manchester Yeshiva, where he was appointed one of the Principals. He held that appointment until he passed away in 1929. Besides being an eminent Talmudical and general Hebrew scholar, Rabbi Behrman was a most saintly man. The mutual regard and affection between him and my father, through the greater part of their lives, has by far transcended the usual teacher, pupil relationship. The attachment and devotion towards each other was more like father and son. I have vivid recollections of the intense joy shown by them when they happened to be together and their reluctance to part from each other when they were obliged to do so.

The other outstanding pupil of my father was Rabbi Medalie. He was two to three years older than myself. He was sent to Krottingen from a nearby town, in order to be instructed by my father. I remember him being constantly absorbed in his studies and he was soon recognised by father as a genius. He was later known as an illuy, a prodigy, even before his barmitzvah. He was, in fact, called "Der Krottinger Illuy". After obtaining Semicha, he occupied several positions as Rav in notable communities of Russia and was eventually appointed Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Rabbi Medalie held that position until the Churban during the second world war, when he was tragically killed. His son Rabbi Dr Hillel Medalie served as Av of the Leeds Beth Din.

As far as I know, my father was rather reluctant to carry on permanently the profession of a Hebrew teacher as a means of earning a living. He always preferred to engage in business for that purpose, although he was ever ready to spread the knowledge of Torah in an honorary capacity. He conducted Shiurim in Talmud or Shulchan Aruch etc and often delivered Droshas, Sermons to large audiences in Shool or in the Beth Hamedrash as well as at private gatherings in one of the local chevras.

Father carried out business from time to time, although not too successfully. At one time he acted as manager of some commercial concern owned by Reb Elija Levenson, who was known as "Reb Elye Krottinger". It was a transport business, situated in a remote district of Russia and he was absent from home for long periods. Father also held for a time the position of Tzlen in Krottingen. It was a government post and his duties were, I believe, something in connection with the issue of passports and other matters affecting the local Jews, including the registration of births. These activities took place I believe during the greater part of time I attended cheder. In later years I gathered that father had a great struggle to "make ends meet". This was the case with the majority of the members of the Krottingen community.

I learnt from father that at the age of 16, when he had already gone through the greater part of the Talmud and Poskim ( a name given to authors of responsa, who made authoritative decisions on Jewish Law) he realised that he almost entirely lacked a proper knowledge of Hebrew Grammar. Furthermore he only had a limited knowledge of Tenach (the initial letters of Torah, Neviim and Ketubim, the Pentateuch, Prophets and Writings). He resolved to make good these deficienncies by devoting some of his available to its intensive study, concurrently with his regular studies of the Talmud. As a result he soon succeeded in mastering these subjects and gained a reputation of being a great authority on the whole of Tenach and of having an excellent knowledge of Hebrew Grammar. This was clearly manifested in his interpretations of the Torah when he delivered Droshas, as well as in his exegetical Sefer "Yalkut Yechezkel", which he published in 1923.


Reb Elye Krottinger   [back to top]

Many of the towns and shtetlech of Lithuania had nicknames, such as Dorbyaner pipkenikes (pipe smokers), Skuder farfelzimes ( a milky pastry dish), Ritever naroim (simpletons) and so forth. Our town bore the sobriquet of Krottinger groiss-halters (snobs). We were perhaps justified in our pride for its community could boast of having a large number of Lamdonim (learned Jewish men) in town. For besides the spiritual leaders, the Rav and the Dayan, there were many eminent laymen in Krottingen. The most notable of them was Reb Elijah Levenson, popularly known as Reb Elye or Reb Elinke Krottinger. He was a man of vast erudition of the Talmud and allied Hebrew sacred literature. He was renowned throughout Lithuania and beyond its borders for his great wisdom and leadership. He possessed a wide knowledge of general Jewish affairs in the Russian Empire and in many other parts of the world and he was often consulted on important matters generally affecting Jewish life.

As an example of the fame Reb Elye enjoyed as a wise councellor, I was told that when once Baron Horace Gunzburg had a civil action in the Paris courts, at his request, Reb Elye accompanied him to Paris and stayed there with him for the duration of the prolonged action, acting as personal adviser to Baron Gunzburg. The latter (1833-1909) whose title was bestowed upon him by the Duke of Hess Darmstadt, in 1871, was the well known Russian Jewish philanthropist. He became prominent on becoming a charter member of the Society for the Promotion of Culture amongst the Jews of Russia, a society which was founded and had been presided over by his father, Joseph Gunzburg.

Although Reb Elya never practiced as a Rabbi, nor was ordained as one, yet he was the acknowledged counsellor to most of the spiritual leaders in the district. They consulted him on various questions that arose in their communities. His advice was invariably acted upon since they had complete confidence in his wise judgement. Any young Rav who had his first appointment as communal Rabbi in a neighbouring town, never failed to consult Reb Elye before his induction, in order to receive his advice and guidance in regard to carrying out his duties as Rabbi to the congregation.

My father was on terms of the closest friendship with Reb Elye and was a frequent visitor to his house. For a time father was tutor to his son, Zalman, in his advanced studies of Talmud. He also had some commercial connections with Reb Elye, having acted as agent for him in some export business at Kursk and father would thus be away form home for long periods. For some considerable time I used to go with father to the Friday night Service at the home of Reb Elye. The large study at Reb Elye's house, where the service was held, was most luxuriously furnished and decorated, comparing it with the prevailing standards in town. The chairs were beautifully upholstered and fitted with springs and were most comfortable. Besides that, I used to enjoy listening to the conversations which were usually carried on before the service between Reb Elye and his friends, who were some of the most learned and pious Jews in town. I can still recall the distinguished looking face of that saintly man with its chiseled features and snow white beard. He always spoke in a gentle, modulated tone of voice. Reb Elye was always listened to with undivided attention and obviously with the greatest veneration by his friends and admirers. Looking back I was particularly impressed that he never showed the least sign of superiority over the company, either in his knowledge of Torah or in worldly matters, in both of which he excelled. He treated all as his equals in every respect.

Reb Elye, Zichrono-Tzaddik-Livrocho, passed away suddenly during the night after a serious heart attack, shortly after the termination of the Shabbat, possibly in 1885 or 1886. I distinctly remember what a shattering blow his death was to my father. He learned of his death on Sunday morning on going to Shool. Within a few minutes the whole town was astir as the sad news spread. The passing of Reb Elye had been communicated to all Lithuanian towns on the night of his death and from the early hours on Sunday, the day of the funeral, there was a continual stream of Jews arriving in town by every conveyance. Many living in neighbouring villages came on foot. Quite a number of Jews from nearby towns who were unable to obtain transport at short notice or could not afford to pay for it, walked for hours during the night in order to arrive for the Levaye (funeral).

By about mid-day the market place ( which was close to Reb Elye's house) was filled with the great mass of people who dismounted from the numerous carts and traps, which converged from every direction. There were also hundreds of local Jews, men and women, who helped to swell that enormous crowd, all with solemn, mournful faces and many with tearful eyes. the funeral was delayed a couple of hours to allow several eminent Rabbis from distant towns to arrive. The body of the deceased was carried into the Shool, where hespedim, funeral orations, were made by a number of Rabbis, lasting several hours. Although the Shool was very large and had a spacious forecourt, both were filled to capacity and a large number had to remain outside, including well over a hundred Cohanim, who in accordance with Jewish Law, are forbidden to be near a deceased person. Father was therefore asked to deliver a Hesped in the Beth Hamedrash.

This hesped delivered by my father was the most moving funeral oration I have ever heard. Besides enumerating the extraordinary qualities, the great erudition and deep piety of that distinguished Tzaddik, father gave full vent to his own personal feelings at this irreparable loss. The Beth Hamedrash was packed. The loud lamentation and copious tears streaming from the crowd of men was a scene, which I only once witnessed and have never forgotten during the whole of my life. Only once or twice did I go with father to the service at the house of Shiva (week of mourning). I was told that at each of the three daily services, only about half of the people visiting could enter, so large were the crowds.


Rabbi Leibzig Lipkin   [back to top]

Another one of the "Gedolim" (distinguished Jews) in Lithuania was Rabbi Leibzig Lipkin. His first position as Rav was in the townlet of Popelan. After being there a year he received a call from Krottingen, which he accepted. Reb Leibzig, besides being a profound scholar of the Talmud, also possessed considerable secular knowledge, especially in Mathematics and Astronomy. Many of his ancestors were renowned for their great Jewish scholarship. One who was best known in comparatively recent years, was Yisrael Salanter, an uncle of his, the founder of the Musar movement in Lithuania. He was known by that name rather than by his surname, that of Yisrael Lipkin, because he had lived in Salant (which was a town near Krottingen)on his marriage to a young lady there, who was the daughter of an eminent Jew, Jacob Eisenstein.

From his childhood onwards, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter had shown a most remarkable aptitude for traditional Jewish studies of the Talmud and other Rabbinical literature. As was common practice at the time, in the early half of the nineteenth century, he married when quite young and his wife earned their livelihood by keeping a small shop, so to enable her husband to devote himself to intensive study of Torah, Consequently Rabbi Yisrael developed to such an extent that he soon became very famous throughout Lithuania as one of the greatest Jewish scholars of his age.

Reb Yisrael Lipkin, while he lived in Salant, became the leader of a group of students and business men who devoted some time every day to the study of Musar and his fame as a Talmudist of rare quality had spread so far that at the age of thirty, he received a call from Vilna to take up the position as principal of the well-known Meilis Academy. He also introduced the Musar movement to the community of Lithuanian Jews, who resided in Memel, about 15 miles from Krottingen, which town he often visited. He was therefore well-known to my father from whom I learnt a great deal about Rabbi Yisrael Salanter

As a young boy, I recall that whenever I saw our Rav, Reb Leibzig, either in the Shool, in the Beth Hamedrash or when meeting him in the street, he always appeared to me as if he had an aura of sanctity hovering about his person, as if he belonged to a celestial rather than a terrestrial world, so benign and angelic was the look on his face. The kind benevolent gaze in his eyes and the low tone of his voice revealed the gentle, refined nature of Reb Leibzig. I never heard him unduly raise his voice, either in command or admonition.

I have a vivid recollection of once calling at the Rav's house for the purpose of buying some salt, (he had the monopoly for the sale of salt, or Salz-Karopke), which was in lieu of his salary or part of it. On opening the door in the lobby leading into the house, one noticed a large-sized room, sparsely furnished but spotlessly clean. On one side of the room there was a small alcove with a window, where the Rav sat at a table with an open tome in front of him, in which he was absorbed. The complete silence that reigned in the room must have been broken by my footsteps as I walked across the floor, for as I approached near the table where the Rav sat, he raised his head, gave me a friendly smile and directed me to an adjoining room. There, the Rebbetzin received me in silence but also with a friendly smile. Then, after she carefully closed the door of that small room, she and her daughter served me with the salt, which the latter poured into the container I had brought with me. The transaction was carried out in a low tone, in order not to disturb the Rav while he was engaged in his meditation of the Sepher.

Unlike Reb Elye, Reb Leibzig could not have been considered a man of action.. Reb Elye was engaged in commercial enterprises and had an interest in a private banking concern conducted by his brother-in-law. He also was a diplomat and a man who generally took an active part in all Jewish affairs. Reb Leibzig, as far as I know, took a small active part in local communal matters not connected with strictly religious questions. His conception of the primary duties and functions of the spiritual head of a Jewish community was apparently that of being wholly engrossed in the study of Torah. This view was held by many of the eminent Rabbis of those days. It was of the greatest importance on the part of the spiritual leader to master the Torah in order to enable him to disseminate the knowledge acquired by him to his own community and to the Jewish people as a whole. That aspiration of Reb Leibzig was in a very large measure realised.

Reb Leibzig was the author of a number of books, dealing with the Bible, the Talmud and cognate sacred subjects. These were widely circulated in Lithuania and other parts of Eastern Europe. He also published books which dealt with Kabbala, Astronomy and Higher Mathematics. The circulation of the latter two subjects, on which he was reputed to be a great authority, were confined to private distribution amongst those who made a special study of these subjects.

Although Reb Leibzig did not take an active part in the social and communal life of Krottingen, he was nevertheless beloved by everyone in town, who recognised both his eminence in sacred Jewish lore and his noble character. the community felt deeply indebted to that saintly man, for his presence in the town not only exerted great influence but considerably enhances the status of the community, which he served as Rav for 25 years. He passed away in 1902 at the age of 63. The only descendant I know was one daughter, who married Rabbi Zalman Levitus. They unfortunately fell victim to the Nazis. A niece of Reb Leibzig was Rabbi Ferber's late wife.


Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchok Hurwitz   [back to top]

Another outstanding Tzaddik of Krottingen was Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchok Hurwitz, zl. He was Dayan of Krottingen and was best known as Der Rebelle. He was more than highly esteemed by the community. The affection, which every man and woman held for that wonderful man, was quite unique. One cannot give a proper appraisal of his piety, humility and loving kindness, apart from his vast erudition. He was a saintly man.

The admiration and affection of the Jews of Krottingen for the Rebbelle did not diminish on their emigration to other countries. In about the middle of the 1890s, the landsmen in Sunderland founded a "Rebbelle Society", the contribution to which was one penny a week in order to augment his salary as the Dayan, that is if he accepted a salary. His daughter carried on a small business of her own, a tiny shop, the income of which might have sufficed for their frugal livelihood. This contribution by his landsmen used to be sent to the Rebbelle twice a year. The moment he received it, regardless of the weather he would immediately go out and distribute at least half of the amount amongst the poor of the town.

A further manifestation of the esteem and affection held for the Rebbelle by his landsmen was the acquiring of a photograph of him in about 1895, either with his consent or surreptitiously. This was sent to Sunderland and copied by all the Krettinger there. Many enlarged the photo and gave it place of honour in their parlour.

On referring to the shop owned by the Rebbelle's daughter, this was situated some distance from his house. The Rebbelle made it a practice to go to town to the shop every day in the capacity of "Weights Inspector!". He was always apprehensive lest perchance some crumb stuck to the bottom of the scale, which his daughter may have overlooked and he therefore attended personally to guard against running such an awful risk as giving (though inadvertently) the wrong weight to a customer.

The Rebbelle was usually seen at the various places of worship during the morning and afternoon services. Whether one davened in the Shool, the Beth Hamedrash or the Klaus, one always saw him make his appearance there during the repetition of the Amida, in order to join the reader in the recital of Kedusha, which is read aloud and responded to by the congregation. There were several morning and afternoon services at about an hour and half an hour intervals to meet the convenience of the public. The Rebbelle attended the earliest one but timed himself so that he could join in the recital of the Kedusha at the subsequent services.

Unfortunately the Rebbelle suffered from rather a bad lisp and for that reason was unable to conduct Shiurim or engage in religious or Hebrew education. His time, however, was fully occupied from early morning until late at night. For besides devoting many hours a day to the study of Torah, he also dealt with most of the Shealot (ritual questions). These were very numerous, for if the Jewish housewife had a silent doubt concerning kashrus, she straightaway consulted the Dayan. Even when she noticed a tiny speck on an egg, she would not use it until being assured by the Dayan of its fitness for eating. The Rav, Reb Leibzig, also dealt occasional with complicated ritual questions and of course, with any disputes that arose between Jews, which rarely happened in our town.

One can imagine how perturbed the Rebbelle must have been when faced with a difficult Shaalah to adjudicate. He frequently had to give a decision on the ritual fitness for consumption of a fowl. How painful it must have been for him when he had to condemn one belonging to a poor person, knowing well that the luxury of a chicken for Shabbos was a rare treat for the poor. On the other hand, how great was his delight when he could declare it kosher. I once actually experienced this when my sister was busy and sent me to the Rebbelle to ask a shaalah on a chicken we had bought for Shabbos. Whist he was examining the fowl, I noticed an intense look on his face as if seriously deliberating upon some defect inside the fowl. Turning to the book-shelves, he took down a safer and studied it for a few minutes. Suddenly I saw the face of the Rebbelle relax and with eyes full of joy, he exclaimed "kosher, kosher!" With a feeling of immense relief I hurried home to convey the good news. If the Rebbelle's concern was so great over a fowl, I can well imagine how deep his anxiety and foreboding was when he had to make a decision concerning a slaughtered animal belonging to either of the two butchers in Krottingen, neither of whom were too well off.

The Dayan had little time to relax on weekdays and even on Shabbos. On that day he was engaged in carrying out the precept of "Let thy house be open wide, let the poor be members of thy household". Despite his very meagre stipend (if he received any at all) he always kept an "open-house" to the local poor and wayfarers who came into the town for Shabbat. The Rebbelle used to entertain these people every Shabbat afternoon, as well as many of the poor working class Jews in town, to "Tea", not in the modern sense, but simply to a glass of hot lemon tea with sugar.

Most of the houses had large built-in ovens which, besides warming the house in the winter, also served for cooking and baking all the year round. When these ovens were properly heated with logs of wood, and after removing the burning ambers and tightly closing its iron doors, the heat was retained for at least 24 hours. All the prepared food on Friday for Shabbos, as well as boiling hot water was kept on the "Rher", the upper section and hottest part of the oven. The Rebbelle had a number of very large earthenware jars, called "Bomples", which he filled with boiling hot water and with the large quantity of strongly infused tea (kept cold) he was able to serve scores of glasses of hot tea on the Shabbat afternoon to meet all demands for this beverage. That was the usual refreshment for a Shabbat afternoon after a nap.

Friday used to be the busiest day for the Rebbelle. For besides being engaged for hours in the preparation of the tea, to which he always attended personally, he also assisted in the general preparations for Shabbos at home. Although there was an official "Shool klapper" knocking at the Jewish houses some time before the Shabbat commenced to remind everyone of its imminent approach, yet in addition to that, the Rebbelle made it his business to go round to the market square and other parts of the town where shops were situated in order to see that they were closed in good time. No-one ever took offence at his reminder but immediately proceeded with his request to lock up.

No-one ever refused to comply with the Rebbelle's requests in the matter of religious observances, including that of assisting the needy and the ailing, to whom he gave much of his attention. I remember when one of the plutocrats of Krottingen, named Miche Mayer, who was said to be the wealthiest Jew in the town, once created an uproar in the local Jewish community. Whilst he was building a brewery in the centre of the town, he failed to suspend building operations on Shabbat, by non Jews, of course. The leaders of the community, who naturally considered it a desecration of the holy day, strongly protested against it. It was decided to ask the Rebbelle to see him about it. No sooner did the latter speak to Miche Mayer and pointed out that it was a Chilul Hashem (profanation of the holly name) to carry on the work during the Shabbat, than he at once promised the Rebbelle to comply with his request. The latter never commanded or ordered anyone to carry out his behest, he simply asked one to do so as if he were begging a personal favour and nobody had the heart to refuse him.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Miche Mayer because he smuggled me across the German frontier when we left Russia for England. Each one of our family was individually smuggled over the Russian border. Lithuania was a province of Russia at that time, 1889, and it was not an easy matter to leave that country legally. Other prominent men in Krottingen managed to help our stepmother, my sister and three brothers across the frontier.

The modus operandi of my crossing was as follows: Miche Mayer called for me with a trap and we drove up to about 10 or 15 minutes walk from the Grenez, the frontier. Then on dismounting from the trap, we walked slowly along hand in hand, as if we were just having a leisurely stroll together and keeping up an animated talk between us. On reaching the frontier, the sentry standing there, who evidently knew my escort very well and no doubt often received substantial "tips" from him, simply raised his hand to his hat, a kind of obeisant salutation to him and we continued our stroll onto German soil.

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