Pinkhas (Phillip Berliner)
(Written by his son-in-law Chaim Freedman in “The Pen and the Blade, Super Family” 1992).
Pinkhas (Phillip) Berliner was born in London, England in 1916, the youngest son of immigrants from Lodz, Poland. He attended Yeshivah Etz Chaim in London where he learned under the prominent Lithuanian leaders of English ultra-orthodoxy at the time, Rabbis Eliya Lopian and Eliyahu-Eliezer Dessler. He was such an excellent student that his teachers selected him to join a group which went to study at the recently established Gateshead Yeshiva in 1931 under Rabbi N.D.Landinsky.
In the mid 1930’s a proposal was made by the rabbis of Etz Chaim and Gateshead to further the higher religious education of English Yeshiva students at prominent eastern European Yeshivot. Pinkhas Berliner was selected to join a group of about ten students who went to Mir Yeshiva in Poland (now Belarus) and to Telz (Telsiai) Yeshivah in Poland. The group included Rabbi Nakhum-Zev (Velvel) Dessler, Josh Chinn, Rabbi Shlomo Davis, Rabbi Koppul Rosen, Rabbi Chaim Gutnik, Montie Moore, Rabbi Shmuel Bloch, Rabbi Dovber Silver and others who became leading orthodox rabbis and scholars, mainly in the United states. Details are to be found at http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~rkimble/Mirweb/YeshivaStudents.html .
Pinkhas Berliner studied in Mir under the renowned Rosh Yeshivah Rabbi Eliezer-Yehudah Finkel and the Mashgiakh Rabbi Yekhezkel Levinstein. On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the foreign students fled Poland, by order of the Rosh Yeshivah, the day before the Germans invaded Poland. For several months the group wandered backwards and forwards through Latvia and Estonia since they had inadequate papers. During this period of extreme physical deprivation and exposure. Pinkhas’s health suffered irreparably. Eventually visas were obtained through a Jewish member of the Latvian parliament, Rabbi Mordekhai Dubin, and the group settled in Lithuania at Telz Yeshivah under the soon to be martyred Rabbi Avraham-Yitskhak Bloch.
After nine months in Telz, in February 1940 Pinkhas rejoined Mir Yeshiva which had been relocated in Keidan, Lithuania. There he was finalizing his studies to qualify for Semikhah (rabbinical ordination) when the Soviet Army invaded the Baltic States. The Yeshivot were constantly harassed by the Communist regime and as the Germany army hovered in nearby Poland, the future looked ominous.
The British Government finally arranged a means of evacuating British and other foreign nationals. Travelling on visas issued by the famous Japanese consul in Kovno (Kaunas) Sugiharo, the group was sent eastwards via the Trans Siberian Railway to Vladivostok. From there they went to Hong Kong but were unable to continue to America due to hostilities at sea. Instead the group travelled to Brisbane, Australia. After several months of futile attempts to establish a Yeshivah in Melbourne, most of the group made their way to America and were amongst the founders of Mir, Telz and Lakewood Yeshivot. Some returned to England after the war.
Those remaining in Australia were Rabbi Dovber Silver, Rabbi Chaim Gutnik and Pinkhas (now Phillip) Berliner. Although he had a visa for America and had been accepted to Yeshiva Mesifta Torah Vadaat in New York, Phillip remained in Australia. He taught briefly in Sydney until he went to Melbourne in 1941 to marry Edna, daughter of Rabbi Yitskhak Yaakov and Lena Super. They had three daughters Mirel-Shulamit (Muriel) Kleerekoper, Leah-Nekhama (Lena) Pose and Sheindel (Jane) Freedman.
In order to support his family Phillip learnt Shekhitah and joined his father-in-law at this arduous vocation. He also taught religious classes for the United Jewish Education Board and was assistant Chazan at the St.Kilda Hebrew Congregation. In 1946 he was granted the title “Reverend” by Rabbi Jacob Danglow in recognition of his services to the congregation.
Phillip Berliner was widely respected throughout the community. He approached his vocation with a deep sense of dedication and his sincere enthusiasm for Judaism inspired his students, in particular a small group that studied with him. One of these, Professor Louis Waller wrote to Phillip’s daughter Jane Freedman:
“Your father was a generous teacher in terms of time and energy. He drilled us rigorously in formal Hebrew grammar, introducing me to the patterns and paradigms which became ingrained. Though he was not a scientific linguist, he was very knowledgeable and very determined that our foundations in structure would be well laid. He invited Max Jotkovitz, Sonja Black and me to your home in Crimea Street on Saturday afternoons in the latter part of 1948 and 1949 for revision of the set books and lightening like parsing, declension and conjunction. Your mother would give us tea and cake to sustain us, and your grandfather viewed us with a bemused but benevolent eye. In addition to the biblical set books, grammar and history, we also studied a tractate of Mishnah, Baba Batra.”
Berliner’s work as a Shokhet was very taxing, both from the long work hours and the nature of the work. As recalled by Waller: “I asked your father about his work as a Shochet. He showed me his Khalef (blade) which he carried in a case in his breast pocket. I have an impression, but not a strong one, that he found his work in the slaughter house not only physically but also mentally very demanding.”
Reverend Berliner had regular duties to perform for the St.Kilda synagogue. Aside from services, in particular reading the Torah and teaching, he had to attend weddings, funerals and other occasions in the life of the congregants. In this way he built up a wide circle of people who held him in respect for his mild manner and friendly disposition. Professor Waller, in a memorial to Rabbi Danglow (St.Kilda Hebrew Congregation Chronicle, March 1981), mentions Berliner both as his teacher and paints a picture of the Bimah at the St.Kilda synagogue whilst Rabbi Danglow conducted the Neilah service:
“It is Neilah. On the Almemar stand Reverend Kowadlo and Mr. Berliner – as always. Each is enveloped in white Kittel and woolen Tallit. But both are at the back of the Almemor, in their respective corners. At the desk stands the Rabbi. He is davening Neilah.”
Berliner’s communal duties were not without considerable aggravation, as was common among the Melbourne synagogues, internal politics often claimed innocent victims, in this case Phillip Berliner. His health was never the best, he suffered severely from asthma, and the machinations of several members of the Board of his synagogue wounded him deeply.
On Shabbat, 20th Kheshavn 5720, November 21, 1959 Phillip Berliner died suddenly following a severe asthma attack. The entire community was shocked that this man, beloved by so many, had been struck down in his prime at the age at the age of forty-three.
Phillip’s widow Edna was faced with the awesome task of bringing up their three daughters.
Phillip Berliner C.V. (click to enlarge)
Novoyelna summer camp about 1938
Reference from Rabbi Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, Rosh Yeshiva of Mir
Reference from Rabbi Avraham Yitskhak Bloch, Rosh Yeshiva Telz.
Visa from Japanese Consul Sugihara, Kovno 1940
Phillip Berliner married in 1941 Edna, the daughter of Rabbi Yitskhak Yaakov Super of Melbourne. Berliner served the Melbourne community as Shokhel, Chazan and teacher until his premature death in 1959.
An archive of his papers is to be donated to the Jewish Museum in Melbourne.