22 MAY 1941, Page 9



A MONG the many institutions in Eastern Europe devoted to ti the pursuit of knowledge which have been swept away by the scourge of war, probably the least known in the western world is the "Klaus." The word is derived from the mediaeval Latin " clusa," which means a cloister, and it signifies a place primarily dedicated to the study of Rabbinic lore. It was a characteristic feature of most of the Jewish communities in that region, which were strongholds of religious tradition and regu- lated their lives according to the rules laid down by the Rabbis of ancient Palestine and Babylon. It was usually an unpre- tentious sort of building, the annexe of a synagogue or a little hall, or quite often merely a large room in a block of dwellings; and its interior design was somewhat like that of a synagogue, for it also served as a house of prayer. Apart from the draped Ark against the eastern wall, which contained the parchment scrolls of the Torah, each swathed in a velvet mantle, the most conspicuous articles of furniture were a large book-case or open shelves filled with the ponderous tomes of the Talmud or other branches of Rabbinic literature, and a long, bare, massive table, disfigured with blobs of candle-grease, and flanked by wooden benches.

The students who frequented the " Klaus " were only in a minority of cases men training for a spiritual calling; for the most part they were students for love of the sacred writings, to which they applied themselves with zeal and concentration. Many of them were engaged in business or manual trades during the day, and were thus able to' learn," as the expression went, only in the evening; others, who were supported by some charitable society, pored over the ancient Hebrew tractates day and night. Some studied under the guidance of a venerable mentor, who expounded difficult arguments about ritual law in a quaint sing-song intonation, emphasising important points with the downward jerk of an inverted thumb; others studied in couples, so as to help one another in the unravelling of knotty passages; and others again ploughed their lonely furrow. Whether spurred on by professional aspiration or not, they re- garded their intellectual task as an act of religious merit, which diffused a glow of idealism over their otherwise sombre lives. They might be racked by material cares during the day, but as soon as they were absorbed in a page of the Talmud they were transported to a different and higher world. Most of them, at night, used candles- to illumine the island of text surrounded by a sea of commentaries, and shed grease both upon text and table. Some even slept in the "Klaus," despite the hardness of the benefits, in the cosy warmth of an ugly black stove, and rose at dawn refreshed and eager to resume where they had left off the previous midnight. The members of a 'Klaus" were generally linked together by some common interest, such as comradeship in the siime branch of social work—visiting the sick or giving hospitality to wayfarers. In most cases they were fellow-workmen in the same trade, who formed ? sort of guild, for if they prayed and studied together they would find it all the more convenient to discuss their mundane affairs. In Vilna, at the time of its annexation by Soviet Russia, there were over a hundred such establishments, of which by far the greater majority belonged to different trades. There were separate conventicles for glaziers and wood-choppers, for drapery-sellers and skin-dealers, for shop-keepers and shop assistants, for tailors and cap-makers, butchers and fishmongers, furriers and skin-dressers, carters and candlestick-makers, window-cleaners and water-drawers, painters and sign-writers, musicians and bookbinders, saddlers and embroiderers, locksmiths and grave-diggers, and even separate ones for the bakers of white bread and the bakers of brown bread. Each "Klaus" had its wardens for the management of its affairs, and also included various societies for the study of particular subjects, such as the Scriptures, the Talmud, the Mishnah, or the mediaeval legal codes, for each of which there was a special teacher. Each " Klaus " also had its preacher, who discoursed on the Sabbath evening in the winter or the Sabbath morning in the summer ; and some main- tained three or four teachers, each of whom was a specialist in his subject.

Some of these houses of study were named after famous Rabbis who had prayed and taught in them ; others bore the names of their pious founders ; and others again were called after the societies responsible for their upkeep. The oldest " Klaus " in Vilna, according to an inscription over its entrance, claimed to have been founded as early as 1440, although there were some even more ancient in Lublin. The most famous of these shrines in Vilna was built in 1800 as a memorial to the illustrious Rabbi Elijah, commonly called "the Vilna Gaon" .(Eminence), the greatest Talmudical authority since mediaeval times, who combined secular knowledge with Rabbinical wisdom, and whose name is uttered to this day throughout the Jewish world with the reverence due to a saint. To study within the precincts of the " Gaon's Klaus" was regarded as conferring especial grace. There were always ten pious scholars there, seated at a table and poring over the Talmud. They had left their wives and families in order to achieve perfect concentration and were always delving into sacred lore to the greater glory of the immortal sage ; and whenever there was a vacancy in their coveted circle it was immediately and eagerly filled. Another shrine bore the name of "Deborah Esther," a woman of exemplary piety and charity, who had plied the humble calling of a hawker of cakes yet saved enough to pay for the rebuilding of this abode of study. Still another owed its establishment to an eighteenth-century patron, who had held the joint office of secretary and judge of the com- munity, and who stipulated in his deed of gift that the students should offer up a special prayer for the repose of his soul on every anniversary of his death, a wish that was piously fulfilled until these latter days.

But now the " Klaus " is no more. Whether in Vilna or Cracow, in Kovno or Lwow, the study of the Talmud in these humble academies has ceased. Whether they are now under the Bolshevist regime, with its proscription of religious observance, or under the Nazi terror, with its ruthless suppres- sion of all Jewish cultural activity, the students of Rabbinic literature have all alike been torn away from their cherished pursuit. Some are now slaves in concentration camps, bruised and battered by Aryan barbarians ; others may be brooding upon the ideology of "the dictatorship of• the proletariat.' All alike are mourning the disappearance of a stronghold of tradition and idealism, which had survived the most fanatical persecutions of the middle ages only to succumb in these days of progress and enlightenment, but perhaps consoled by the thought that the doctrines which it had sheltered and enshrined would long outlast the ephemeral reign of its destroyers.