The Vale of Tears by Rabbi Pinchas Hirschprung (The Azrieli Foundation, 2016: 318 pages)
Reviewed by Rebecca Klempner
The Azrieli Foundation has produced a new, revised edition of Rabbi Pinchas Hirschprung’s The Vale of Tears. Originally published while the Shoah still raged, the book’s unique voice and point of view set it apart from other volumes of Holocaust literature and remain potent even after decades have passed.
Rabbi Hirschprung arrived in Canada in 1941 after fleeing the Nazis as well as Soviet oppression. Despite his successful escape, his wartime experiences haunted him. “…[T]o keep what I experienced bottled up inside me, to internalize it without sharing with others the impact of what I endured – this I could not do (p. xxxvii).” Rav Hirschprung wrote The Vale of Tears in Yiddish, and it appeared as a serial in the Montreal-based Yiddish newspaper Der Kenedler Adler in 1944. As such, it was one of the first Holocaust memoirs written.
When the war broke out in 1939, Rav Hirschprung was a 27 year old talmid chacham. He lived at home in his shtetl of Dukla, Poland, at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, having returned from his studies at Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. Germany invaded, and the country of Poland was divided between Germany and the USSR. Dukla landed in German hands.
Rav Hirschprung’s Chassidic family consisted of his parents, his sisters, and his grandfather, who served as the Chief Rabbi of Dukla. When German soldiers arrived, they immediate sought out his grandfather, and Rav Hirschprung helped him evade capture and escape. Dukla’s Jews had heard of atrocities committed towards prominent rabbis in other towns and didn’t want their beloved Rabbi Sehmann to suffer the same fate.
The citizens of Dukla now turned to the young Rav Hirschprung for leadership. He was a reluctant organizer; before the war had even started, he suffered from anxiety and depression. But he did his duties until it became clear he, too, had to flee. The Vale of Tears chronicles his escape into Soviet-held Poland, his subsequent flight to Lithuania (accomplished in winter and mostly shoeless), his successful establishment of a new Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin in Vilna, and his escape to Canada via Kobe, Japan.
Many misadventures complicated Rav Hirschprung’s journey, and many heroic figures enhanced it. The vivid portraits of men like Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski and women like Chashe, who fed the destitute and desperate yeshiva students, sparkle in this otherwise somber volume. A nameless woman offers the young rabbi chizzuk on the train, a stranger feeds him in the night – these images show the greatness in simple Jews.
A unique feature of The Vale of Tears is the style in which it is written. Much of the author’s story is couched in allusion to verses from Tanach, events in the Mishnah and Gemara, and familiar Yiddish folktales. The influence of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov hovers over the entire book. Rabbi Hirschprung alludes also to his extensive secular education, referring to Tolstoy and even Marx. The original editor of the serial, Israel Rabinovitch explains, “Had I not known the distinguished young rabbi personally, I would have thought this was literary artifice or even clever propaganda (p. xxxvi).” Indeed, the overall impression is one of brutal honestly, deeply felt emotion, and strange beauty. The reader feels as if they are first-hand witnessing how a man of great knowledge processes tragedy, how his faith is tested, fumbles and yet in the end increases.
The new edition of The Vale of Tears contains a glossary, photos, and an index. Also enhancing this new edition was the decision to put in fewer chapter breaks, which better suits a book than the initial, very short serial installments did.
Due to its rapid wartime publication, no fact-checking could be completed on the original edition. Thus, the editors of the new book have footnoted all assumptions and rumors mentioned by Rav Hirschprung which subsequently proved untrue. For example, the radio reported the suicide of a major political figure, but it turned out he was merely on the run, and Rav Hirschprung was still unaware of his relatives’ fates at the time of his writing.
David J. Azrieli, a Holocaust survivor and the founder of The Azrieli Foundation, introduces the new edition of The Vale of Tears with the following statement: “…knowing that our stories will be read and live on, it is possible for us [meaning: survivors] to feel truly free (Preface).” From a biographical note added by family members, we learn about Rav Hirschprung’s later years. Rav Hirschprung married his rebbitzen Alte Chaya, raised nine children with her, led a shul, and founded the local Bais Yaakov school for girls. Eventually, he became not only the Chief Rabbi of Montreal, but an internationally known and respected gadol. Clearly, he did more than “live on.”