A Torah World in the Shadow of the Shoah, the Correspondence of Ernest Gugenheim (OU Press: 2014)
Reviewed by Rebecca Klempner
In Letters from Mir: A Torah World in the Shadow of the Shoah, readers get to see what der heim, the old country, was like through a first-hand account written by a student of the Mir Yeshiva in 1938. Letters from Mir consists of letters sent home to France by the Alsatian bochur, Rabbi Ernest Gugenheim, during the period he learned at the Mir Yeshiva under Rabbi Yechezkel Loewenstein (Levenstein). The letters were collected years later by Rabbi Gugenheim’s remarkable wife, Claude-Annie, who, along with their daughter, Martine, edited them for publication. The translation into English by Ken Ritter followed an earlier edition of the book in French.
The joy that Torah study brought the Mir’s students is palpable to readers from the moment young Rabbi Gugenheim enters the beis medrash with the bochurim who met him at the train station (interestingly, their number includes a young Shlomo Wolbe, who later became a rabbi and a rosh yeshiva himself in Israel). Young Rabbi Gugenheim described the scene: “It is ten-thirty in the evening, and we approach the yeshiva. We first hear from outside a chanting sound, or rather it is louder than chanting, but really this is nothing yet. We enter, and, lo, an immense room, truly immense, and inside there are let us say fifty to a hundred fellows, masmidim, who sing, who shout, who move and shake in a frenzy that delights and frightens you at the same time.” Due to the late hour, this represented only a fraction of the yeshiva’s students, a fact that astonished Rabbi Gugenheim.
The schedule kept by the students while at the Mir was a rigorous one. Long sedarim were complemented by collective reading of Mesillas Yesharim daily, supplemented by periodic mussar schmussen by the Rosh Yeshiva. Rabbi Gugenheim spoke warmly of yeshiva personnel and his classmates. However, many of the newer students skipped Gemara shiurim by Rabbi Loewenstein because the complexities of his arguments flew over their heads. Instead, they opted to learn with a chevrusa or in small groups.
As he adjusted to yeshiva life, Rabbi Gugenheim sent home descriptions of his meals, clothing, bedding, transportation, and even bathing arrangements. We can read weather reports in his letters and learn about the yeshiva’s minhagim, as well as those in the surrounding town.
One of the things that I most valued about Letters from Mir was the specificity of detail. For example, the yeshiva ran on “yeshiva time,” a clock distinct from local time. And I laughed at how any new student seemed to be greeted with an attempt at “Jewish geography.” While I found it unsurprising that the Mir’s students did not go to the movies or theaters, I was a bit astonished to find out that they learned about world events from non-Jewish newspapers, and that to practice his Yiddish, Rabbi Gugenheim read novels by an irreligious author. This paints a very different picture of pre-War, Orthodox Jewry than do the many stories which tend to highlight purity and elevation above secular culture.
As a primary source on this historical period, Letters from Mir inevitably reflects the biases of its author. These letters are from a young, unmarried man in his twenties, a student used to the conveniences of Western Europe and most comfortable among Jews like himself. Rabbi Gugenheim joked in his letters about who had a beard and who didn’t, the primitive plumbing, and how much better it was to be surrounded by Russian gentiles than Polish ones (the former being less anti-semitic). At least initially, he looked askance at Hasidim, and tended to think of the mode of study, students, and rebbes of the Mir as better than their equivalents in all other yeshivos. The young Ernest Gugenheim was not without foibles, but for me that added to the charm of this volume.
Several passages of Letters from Mir reminded me of the center section of All for the Boss, in which Ruchoma Shain described her experience as a kollel wife in Europe during roughly the same time period. I imagine that pairing those two books, alongside a similar volume about Hasidishe life in the 1930s, would make a marvelous reading list for a high school or college class about pre-war Europe.
The OU Press is to be commended for this volume. Not only because of the insights and history it contains, but because they created it with flair. The quality of the cover, printing, and binding is top-notch. The translation maintains the chatty tone of the original documents, and the editors fleshed the letters out with photos, footnotes, and a glossary. These greatly enrich the reader’s understanding of Rabbi Gugenheim’s experiences. Other additions include biographical essays and historical context offered by the Gugenheim family and Rabbi Genack of the OU. The entire package is eminently informative, easy-to-understand, and a pleasure to read.