The Chazon Ish once testified that Reb Elchanan totally fulfilled the principle “I placed G-d before me at all times”. In a generation renowned for its many great Roshei Yeshivot, he was distinguished not only for his great learning but for the impact his personality made on his students.
Reb Elchanan was born in Birz, Lithuania. He studied in the Telshe Yeshiva under R. Shimon Shkop. In 1897 he met R. Chaim Brisker and became his disciple. Whereas R. Shimon was concerned with the “why” R. Chaim said “One has to know what is stated, not why”. Reb Elchanan was deeply influenced by both but eventually developed his own approach.
A new era began for Reb Elchanan when he met the Chofetz Chaim in 1907. Though he had already served with noted success as Yeshiva head of Amtchislav and was now a mature man of 32, he joined the Kodoshim Kollel of the Chofetz Chaim. Reb Elchanan viewed the Chofetz Chaim as a living Torah and trembled in his presence. The Chofetz Chaim became Reb Elchanan’s lifetime role model. In 1910 he became a Rosh Yeshiva in Brisk until the outbreak of the war in 1914. In 1921, he became head of the Yeshiva Ohel Torah in Baranovitch, where he remained for the rest of his life. Because of his great influence the Yeshiva grew and, in spite of its abysmal poverty, attracted many hundreds of disciples.
Besides his role as yeshiva head, Reb Elchanan was deeply involved in communal matters, and was active in Agudas Israel. In addition to his lectures and Talmudic writings, he was also a thinker and interpreter of contemporary events and his ideas were published in a book of essays (Kovetz Maamorim). He maintained that just as the Torah provides guidance in strictly halachic matters, it also provides illumination of the era in which we live. Thus, for example, his essay, The Footprints of the Messiah, presented a sweeping view of modern life. Two of his main points are the rapid pace with which the world is developing in contrast to previous generations and the idol of nationalism which he saw as striving to replace Torah as the central factor of Jewish life.
He visited America in 1939 and though, he could have remained and avoided the imminent catastrophe, he never considered it as a possibility. He felt that he must return to his Yeshiva and be with his students.
While on a visit to Kovno the Germans declared war on Russia and Reb Elchanan was unable to return to the yeshiva. On July 6, 1941 Reb Elchanan was studying in the house of R. Avrohom Grodzensky, in the company of a group of scholars, when four armed Lithuanians came in shouting and taunting. It was obvious that the end was near and Reb Elchanan spoke his last words:
“Heaven apparently considers us righteous people, for it wants us to atone with our bodies for Jewry as a whole. So we must repent now…if we repent, we will thereby save the remaining Jews, our brothers and sisters, so that they will be able to carry on as the remnant of Jewry”.