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[Page 319]

Our Beloved Ones,
May Their Memory Be Blessed

Translation by Rachel Zetland

Donated by Jay Snider

 

[Page 321]

My grandfather Isaac Meir Zuk

Pnina Beserglick née Manin[1]

The Germans gathered the Jews from Rafalovka the Town, from Zoludzk, Olizarka and the neighboring towns in Rafalovka the Station. It was very crowded. They declared it a ghetto, and the Jews could not leave.

My grandfather was very “fortunate.” He was allowed to leave the ghetto during the week and work for the Germans in the nearby villages. On Friday he would return to the ghetto to his family, his wife Pesia, and their five children Shalom, Hannah, Bruria, Yokheved and Hinda.

One day it became evident that the Germans were planning to kill the Jews of the ghetto. Hannah, Isaac's daughter, my aunt I never met, decided to try and save her father, if no one else.

She managed to collect valuable clothes and gave them to a goy she knew, hoping that he was trustworthy. She gave him a note and asked him to wait for her father at some distance from the ghetto and give him the note. It said:
“Father, don't come back to the ghetto, you won't be able to help us. We are being executed this Saturday. Try to run away towards the East and join your three children. Recount the horrors we went through - Hannah.”

My grandfather was shocked, and could not digest what he had read. How can a man leave his wife and children and save only himself? He started running towards the ghetto. Suddenly, he turned around and started running in the opposite direction. His daughter Hannah was right. He could not help his family in the ghetto, but he could take revenge against the Germans and maybe make it to his other three children. But where would he go? The Germans consider him a “number.” They won't rest until they find him, or else their secret will be revealed, the secret of their plan to murder the masses of Jews.

My grandfather ran away to one of the villages where a goy hid him in a “ditch” dug out below the pigsty. It was a small airless place and he couldn't move inside it. Above his head was a tin lid covered with hay. Here, in a pigsty, the Germans will surely not look for a Jew.

My grandfather ate potato peels thrown into the pit from time to time. He was a tall and strong Jew and weighed 100 kilos going into the pit. About month later he came out weighing only 45 kilos.

My grandmother and her 5 children were executed on the 15th of Elul together with the rest of the people of the ghetto. The Germans looked for my grandfather everywhere. After some time, he joined the partisans in the forests. There he took his revenge, and saved orphaned children in the most unimaginable conditions. He managed to make aliyah in 1949 after the establishment of the State of Israel and settled in Kiryat Haim. He erected a synagogue there and provided marble plaques to commemorate the beloved ones from Rafalovka, Olizarka and Zoludzk. My grandfather passed away in 1972, may his memory be blessed.


[Page 322]

Rabbi Isaac Meir builds a 'small temple'

[ a synagogue and place of learning]

Haim Fikersh[2]

It was a difficult walk for the revered man making his way on the sandy path across the veterans' neighborhood in Kiryat Haim. It was a strenuous effort, but it was worth it. Ever since he heard the echoes of the Rosh Hashanah prayer and the sound of the shofar being blown, he was caught up in an emotional turmoil and his soul was restless to hear the songs and prayer from up close.

He marched heavily but paid no attention to it. He thought about his father's home and the holy life that took place there, the landscape of the town, the Hassidic life he loved so dearly, and from which he had strayed so far…

Caught up in these disturbing thoughts the honored man suddenly found himself at the entrance of the small synagogue surrounded by a group of praying men wrapped in tallith and white kitls, raising their heads to the God in Heaven and singing the hymns of Rosh Hashanah with supreme devotion.

[Page 323]

Wondering about this exalted moment, his eyes fell upon one of the men who was standing in the Western corner praying excitedly. From time to time he would walk up to the others and warmly shake their hand and wish them a Shanah Tovah. He approached the respected man and stretched out his arm to bless him.

Their eyes met. They knew each other, but did not remember where from… Later the revered man was suddenly overwhelmed by emotion. He sneaked out of the synagogue and wandered around, lost in deep reflection.

Yes, he remembered, this praying man was no other than Rabbi Isaac Meir. About 6 months ago he had stood before the judge's bench with beseeching looks, asking to justify himself against the verdict he had just been served for having built the foundations for a synagogue in his home in the neighborhood without a permit. The respected man, having been the local judge in that case himself, remembered; he fined the construction of the synagogue he himself prays at 25 Israeli Liras.

Ever since this surprising encounter the judge's consciousness bothered him. He could not find peace and walked the streets for the entire day, refusing to share his inner turmoil with his friends.

At the end of the holiday he stood before Rabbi Isaac Meir's door. The rabbi greeted him and wanted to welcome him into his home. Rabbi Isaac Meir also recognized the judge, but before he could confess, the guest took Rabbi Isaac Meir's bony hands and gave him a wrapped bundle. He asked for forgiveness and slipped away.

When Rabbi Isaac Meir opened his hand 25 Israeli Liras fell on the table… he could see the judge walking from the entrance of his house. He followed him with his eyes and uttered thank you in his gentle and pure voice.

 

“slept outside to keep guard…

The local judge recognized the pure intentions of Rabbi Isaac Meir who wanted to build a synagogue in the yard of his house and for some reason did not know to follow procedures and obtain a permit.

Rabbi Isaac Meir's neighbors, on the other hand, hampered his progress from the beginning. They objected and said the synagogue does not fit in with the surroundings, populated mainly by people from the Labor [Ha-Avodah] Party who want to work in their yards on Saturdays and the synagogue might “bother them.” These neighbors initiated the legal suit and even threatened to tear down his work, which he had erected with his own hands.

When Rabbi Isaac Meir heard that the neighbors were planning to destroy the foundations of the synagogue despite his requests, begging and pleading, he came up with the naive idea - to leave his warm home and sleep every night between the half-built walls of the new building.

And so he did. Every night, after the evening arvit prayer, he took his thin mattress and two covers and went to sleep in the construction site, near a pile of gravel.

[Page 324]

Rabbi Isaac Meir could not fall asleep for a long moment. He was bothered by sad thoughts revolving around only one question:

'Why are the neighbors not allowing him to build the synagogue?'

Early in the morning, before dawn, he would wake up with dewdrops decorating his blanket. His wife was already standing next to him holding the glass of warm milk. Hedva's heart filled with compassion at the sight of her husband and his 'sleeping arrangement', suffering from the night's cold and the mosquito bites. She too asked herself, 'Why are they determined to wreck what is so important to her and her husband Rabbi Isaac Meir?'

 

The catastrophe that beget the idea

“The neighbors would surely have a different attitude if they heard the story of Rabbi Isaac Meir and knew his pure character,” said to us a man from the Navy, while he lead us to his house in the veterans' neighborhood in Kiryat Haim at the beginning of last week. Excited, he described how Rabbi Isaac Meir, with his na.vet., good heart and simple ways had won over many of the neighborhood residents, including himself. They began supporting him in his struggle and even helping him realize his project.

Later on we found ourselves sitting with Rabbi Isaac Meir, an elderly man, a man of labor[3]. He is a tall and strong man, despite his age. When we presented ourselves to him he smiled generously, because he had thought at first that we were from the municipality….

His smile disappeared as we began talking. He crossed his bony hands and started telling us how he decided to see the establishment of this synagogue in his yard as the consolation for the troubles and calamities that happened to him in the past.

It was in 1941. Rabbi Isaac Meir was walking with a meager bundle on his shoulder. He had just run away from Rafalovka, a small town in Poland. He ran away on his own. His family did not want to leave with him and even laughed when he thought “something bad was about to happen.” Rabbi Isaac Meir guessed the calamity, but he did not imagine its magnitude. One morning the Germans raided the town, killing its residents, including his family, wife, brothers and young children. He himself continued to roam the forests. After a few days he found shelter with a Polish goy who was concerned about him and offered to let him dig a pit in the cowshed and stay there till things cooled down.

Rabbi Isaac Meir stayed in the pit for 6 months and only his endurance and faith helped him survive the sufferings of life in a pit dug in the ground. The goy's good heartedness also helped him a great deal. Every morning he would drop a skin water bottle and a basket of food into the pit. Doing this, he would hear Rabbi Isaac Meir's hymns coming up from the pit in a moving voice full of pain.

Russian forces and Jewish partisan managed to get Rabbi Isaac Meir out of the pit. He saw the light of day again, but it was a different, dimmer light…

[Page 325]

Rabbi Isaac Meir returned to the town and started to look for the remains of the family. He found no one. Everything was destroyed and nothing remained of the beloved town. Everything lay in ruins, the houses, the vegetable gardens, and even the synagogues and their special atmosphere. That day Rabbi Isaac Meir walked and walked, crying ceaselessly, looking for a remnant of all that once was there.

Rabbi Isaac Meir would scan the town's streets, burrowing through the garbage and searching in the cowsheds. Here he found Torah scrolls soaked with the blood of Jews. He gathered them up and hid them and carried them with him on his long journey through many countries until he came to the Holy Land.

Rabbi Isaac Meir wanted to commemorate his family and his destroyed town and did not know how. He met his wife, Hedva, while she was also looking for her family. She immigrated to Israel with him and they got married. When they moved to the veterans' neighborhood in Kiryat Haim they began to contemplate the creation of a synagogue in their yard, which they would name after their families and dear ones.

 

The synagogue- before completion

As mentioned before, there were many factors that hindered Rabbi Isaac Meir's project, but finally the honest will of the Rabbi, his wife, and their devoted minyan [a group of ten men needed for prayer, R.Z.] prevailed.

They would gather everyday between minha and ma'ariv, pick up the working tools, and continue building under the professional guidance of Isaac Meir, and so they completed the 'small temple', course upon course.

When the large hall of the synagogue was completed Torah life began emanating it. The number of worshipers grew. Torah lessons were held daily and the neighborhood filled with Sabbath hymns and Hassidic melodies that were once sung in Rabbi Isaac Meir's dear town. His wife, Hedva, did not spare effort and would bake and cook different kinds of Sabbath dishes to distribute among the worshipers. Even the neighborhood children began visiting the synagogue. Initially they were drawn to the place by curiosity, but with time they developed a special kind of love, planted there by Rabbi Isaac Meir himself, who would gather them from the streets into the synagogue every evening, sit them down and give them presents. The kids, their eyes sparkling with mischief, would listen attentively to Rabbi Isaac Meir while he told them tales from the Torah. Their parents laughed to themselves, seeing their children in the synagogue. 'The adults changed their attitude towards me,' says Rabbi Isaac Meir, 'thanks to the little children.'

Aryeh Yadushlivy, from the neighboring town of Kiryat Shmuel, told us about the special atmosphere in this synagogue, with such an abundance of worshipers there is not enough room for everyone. He too prefers to schlep over everyday despite the great distance, in order to come to this synagogue “where simplicity reigns and prayer is pure.”

Rabbi Isaac Meir is very busy with the preparations for Yom Kippur but he does not complain. On the contrary, his heart is overcome by great pleasure and satisfaction fills his soul, because, thank God, he succeeded in realizing his greatest dream.

[Page 326]

The remnants of the town who live in Israel, some of them respected men and public figures, recognize this synagogue as a true memorial to the town's people. They come here every year in order to commune with their dear ones. This encouraged Rabbi Isaac Meir in his endeavors.

Rabbi Isaac Meir accompanies us through the streets of the neighborhood. Before we bid him farewell he tells us in his captivating way that he has an odd sense that the souls of the town's people are hovering inside this 'small temple'. It seems to him, he says, that they are joining in the prayers. And it is this thought that renders Rabbi Isaac Meir's efforts worthwhile.

 

Footnotes
  1. [מנין] ,[בסרגליק]. Return
  2. This is most likely an article that appeared sometime in the 50’s or 60’s. It is written by a journalist [ חיים פיקרש ]. The story of the escape differs somewhat from that given by Rabbi Isaac Meir’s granddaughter (on p. 321 of the original book). I chose to end the translations with this moving piece about commemoration. Return
  3. This is probably a play on words, meant to bring Rabbi Isaac Meir closer to his Labor Party neighbors. Return

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