After the turn of the 20th Century, one of Orthodox Jewry’s great rabbinic authorities and a leader who guided his people with extraordinary wisdom, care, and concern was the Lutzker Rav, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin zt”l. His influence and contributions to Yiddishkeit began well before World War I and continued until his very last day. Virtually no sphere of Jewish communal life was left untouched by his guiding hands, and his magnum opus, sefer Oznayim LaTorah, is still considered a classic of Jewish literature until this day. In 1914 (5674), World War I broke out and Rav Zalman fled to Minsk, where he continued his communal work unabated.
It was in Minsk where he met and befriended the Chazon Ish, Rav Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz zt”l. He worked tirelessly to secure the release of numerous rabbanim and talmidei chachamim from the Russian Army and saw to it that the Chazon Ish also received a deferment. The Chazon Ish was so involved in his studies that he was almost oblivious to the problem. Rav Zalman filled out the necessary forms without his knowledge and arranged his deferment. Later, the Chazon Ish presented Rav Zalman with his copy of the T’shuvos Rabbi Akiva Eiger. On the opening page was inscribed a poem relating the saga of his release from army service, incorporating the initials of Rabbi Sorotzkin’s name.
During World War II, the Soviet authorities threatened to arrest R’ Zalman in Lutsk, so he and his family fled to Vilna and eventually made it to the Land of Israel, which he loved with all his heart and soul. Once in Eretz Yisrael, he continued to work on behalf of klal Yisrael by becoming friends with a number of top Polish officials in Palestine and even with the Polish ambassador himself. This was providential, for it allowed him to intercede on behalf of Jews of Polish nationality.
Among the many things that the council accomplished was the distribution of money sent from the provisional Polish government in London to all Polish citizens living abroad as well as those of Polish descent. It was the council who received the funds and then decided who was eligible to receive them. Since Rav Zalman was a Polish national with a valid Polish passport, he, too, was eligible to receive money, which at the time was his only means of income.
At that time, Rav Elazar Menachem Mann Shach zt”l, who was then a young maggid shiur in the newly formed Yeshivas Ponevezh, was receiving this support, as well. Rav Shach had escaped the destruction of European Jewry in early 1940. His uncle, Rav Aharon Levitan zt”l, helped him and his family obtain immigration certificates and took them in after they arrived at his doorstep in a destitute condition. They managed to live on the meager subsidies received from the provisional government, but times were hard and it was barely enough to survive. Then, the Polish government announced that support would only be given to people with a proper Polish passport and not the provisional passports distributed during the war. Unfortunately, Rav Shach did not have a proper passport and he was declared ineligible. He ran to the Chazon Ish for advice what to do.
The great Poseik HaDor gave him advice. “When you go to receive your permit, stand in line behind the Rav of Lutsk, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin,” he told Rav Shach. “If there’s trouble, he’ll figure out how to help you.”
Well, on the fateful day, Rav Shach stood behind Rav Zalman in the government office. The line moved slowly and the secretary in charge asked many questions of each applicant. Anyone who was not eligible was immediately turned away.
When it was Rav Zalman’s turn, the secretary asked him, “How many children do you have and where are they now?”
This simple question was enough to evoke a painful sigh from Rav Zalman as it brought to fore all his inner pain. His oldest son had been arrested in some town on trumped up charges and was wasting away in jail. His daughter had remained in Lutsk and her fate was unknown. (Later it became known that she, her husband, and their children had all been killed by the Nazis, ym”s). Two other sons were refugees in Japan, and his two youngest sons were studying in Eretz Yisrael. The moment the question was asked, all his pent-up emotion and stored away tears burst forth in a torrent and he could barely get the words out of his mouth. The secretary seemed embarrassed at the situation and began apologizing profusely for her question. She quickly stamped his permit and the permits of all those who were with him – in this case, Rav Shach who had stepped forward to console Rabbi Sorotzkin. In the meantime, they were both deemed eligible and received their normal stipends.