Shortly before Rav Berland left Johannesburg, the editor of the Knishta Hada – the newsletter put out by the Shuvu Banim Yeshiva – managed to speak to Rav Michael Katz, the Rabbi of the Johannesburg Prison Service. He had the following to say about what an impression the Rav made during his stay in the South African prison:
“As part of my duties as the Rabbi of the Prison Service, I met with the Gaon and the Tzaddik, Rav Eliezer Berland, shlita, on many different occasions” begins Rav Katz. “Rav Berland was imprisoned under really terrible conditions, but he was always happy.” The prison cell the Rav was kept in was very small, less than three meters square. It had an untiled, dirt floor, with an open toilet in the corner that was only partitioned off when the Rav used his blanket as makeshift ‘mechitza’. The cell also contained a very small writing table, and a crate of the Rav’s holy books, in one corner.
Rav Katz continued: “Every time someone came to visit the Rav, they would bring him more holy books.” The Rav was imprisoned during the winter months, and during the night the temperature would frequently fall below zero, and the cold would permeate the walls and the floor of the cells in the giant Johannesburg prison building.
The Rav was incarcerated there with literally thousands of other inmates, including the worst dregs of South African society. “I didn’t know whether or not the Rav had his own heater, but when I went to see him I saw that he was keeping himself warm by moving around his cell a lot, and learning Torah,” says Rav Katz.
“I have no idea what the Rav’s davening times were, because each time I visited him, he was happily wrapped in his tefillin and tallit, and always had a holy book in his hand. The wardens, prison guards, and even the other prisoners in Matkan [the name of the prison in Johannesburg) all called the Rav ‘the Holy Man’, and at all hours they would come to him for ask for his blessing, and to ask for his advice about how to deal with the many problems they had in their personal lives.
“The other prisoners treated the Rav very respectfully and honorably, and were trying to look out for him, to make sure that he had what he needed. They would frequently ask him if they could do anything for him.”
Rav Katz said that what amazed him the most, though, about the Rav’s time in the Johannesburg prison, was how he was always smiling and in good spirits, and didn’t complain about his living conditions, unlike the vast majority of the other prisoners there. “He told me repeatedly that everything was good, everything was OK, and that everyone was helping him. He also told me that finally, he had the opportunity to spend lengthy hours in hitbodedut [conversing with Hashem in personal prayer] the way he’d always wanted to.
“The Rav asked me to give over a message in his name that he is always with us, both in our gashmius and our ruchnius, and that we need to strengthen ourselves in emuna and bitachon (trusting in God) that everything that’s happening, it’s all for the good.”
In a separate conversation with one of his students while he was imprisoned in Johannesburg, Rav Berland confided: “I’m in Gan Eden here! I haven’t had this sort of yishuv ha’daat (peace of mind, mental clarity) to be able to learn Torah all day without being interrupted for 50 years, already!”
You can hear the interview with Rav Michael Katz for yourself by calling the Shuvu Banim information line on: 02-991-7173