by Benjamin Bindman
Translated by Sara Mages
My father adhered to the Torah since the dawn of his childhood. Of his four brothers he was the only one who has devoted his life to this noble cause and saw it as his main vocation in life. He was able to fulfill his ambition in life despite the many obstacles that stood in his way.
He headed for the famous Yeshiva in Slabodka, Lita. At that time this Yeshiva was at the height of its splendor and glory. Talented young men, who were superlative in the Torah, were accepted as students to this Yeshiva and distinguished personalities headed it.
Since its establishment this Yeshiva accepted the teaching method of R' Yisrael of Salant ztl, and became famous as the center of the Musar Movement.
My father always mentioned, with love and admiration, the names of his distinguished teachers like: R' Nota Finkel - the grandfather who founded the Yeshiva, R' Yitzchak Yakov Rabinowitch - R' Itzale of Panevezys, R' Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor - the Rabbi of Kovno, and R' Moshe Mordechai Epstein Rosh Metivta [head of the Yeshiva].
He always remembered their sayings: In all situations, troubles and torments, in all conditions of a human being, a person shouldn't lose his balance, the image of God which lies within him. The main ambition is to always point out the superiority of man. It trains him to rise until he's worthy of the crown of God's creation. The greatest obligation in life is the burden of the Kingdom of Heaven.
He absorbed the principles of the Torah and they left their mark on him and guided him throughout his life.
However, the spirit of the Haskalah, which blew at that time, didn't skip him. He read, like many other Yeshiva students, the literature of the Haskalah, and studied night the works of Judah Leib Gordon, Avraham Mapu, and A wanderer on the path of life by Peretz Smolenskin. Although he delved into these books they didn't led him astray. He continued to study, with great diligence and zeal, the six orders of the Mishna and Poskim, and found in them healing, balm and consolation to the pain and indecisions of the human soul.
He lived in poverty during his stay at the Yeshiva and ate every day at a different home. Over time he received, as an outstanding student, private Gemara lessons at the homes of wealthy people. In one of these homes he met Rubinstein, a young Yeshiva student who came to study secular studies (later, he was the Chief Rabbi of the city of Vilna and a member of the Polish Senate).
In this new environment he learned to appreciate the value of secular studies, and realized that it's possible to be educated and along with it to remain a God-fearing Jew.
He spent most of his childhood and adolescence at the Yeshiva in Slabodka. He stayed there until his marriage to my mother Rivka, the daughter of Meir Leib from the city of Smorgon. I, his only son, was born in this city.
Although my father was ordained as a rabbi he didn't use the Torah as a source of income. He began to engage in trade and dedicated his free time to the Torah.
At the outbreak of the First World War my parents wandered far and wide until they reached the city of Romny, Ukraine.
During the First World War, and also a short time after it, we lived in poverty in Russia but we didn't suffer from the shame of hunger. We suffered a lot during the period of the Russian Civil War, and more than once we were saved by a miracle from the pogroms of Petliura's people and others like them.
Even in these chaotic days my father zl continued to study the Torah and prayed every day in public. He devoted a lot of attention to my education. He entered me to Cheder Metukan in which sacred and secular studies were taught in Hebrew in Hebrew.
I studied in this Cheder for a short time. The Bolsheviks rose to power and my father realized that they wouldn't allow him to engage in trade to support his family and pursue his traditional lifestyle.
He was especially troubled by the thought that he wouldn't be able to educate his son on the lap of Torah and Judaism. Therefore, he decided to leave Russia and return to Smorgon.
My parents returned to Smorgon in 1922. The city was destroyed to its foundations and only a few of its previous residents returned to live in it.
The main activity of my father zl concentrated in the field of education. Without noise and without advertising he planned to establish a primary school. He turned to Tarbut institutions in Vilna and discussed the matter with Mr. Zemel. The latter sent the teacher Katz, an educated man with a noble spirit, to Smorgon.
In this manner the primary school Tarbut was established in Smorgon. He also cared for the study of the Bible and Gemara and established Talmud Torah. To do this he brought two talented teachers: Chaskil the white who excelled in his special teaching method and his interpretation of the Bible, and Chaskil the black who was an expert in the teaching of the Gemara.
But it wasn't enough. He quickly realized that a primary education wasn't enough and took care of the continuation of the studies.
In this manner he found the appropriate way to merge sacred and secular studies.
At that time a high-school didn't exist in Smorgon. Therefore, he brought a teacher, a young energetic man named Zuferner who was a graduate of Tarbut Gymnasium in Vilna (later he became famous as a distinguished resistance fighter in the French Maquis and was known by the name Leonard. Not long ago he died in France in middle age). This teacher lived in our house and my father zl gathered groups of students who have received additional lessons so they could be accepted to Tarbut Gymnasium in Vilna. These lessons took place in our home.
All the efforts and the hard work that my father zl invested were not wasted. Over time, his blessed activities yielded results: the Zionist movements found a wide open field and mature youth who were able to understand their doctrine.
My father devoted his free time to the Torah. Every day he gave a Talmud lesson in the kloyze, not for a personal gain but to make the Torah great and mighty. He was careful to leave his business and financial worries at the fixed time in order to give the daily lesson.
At night, he took out the Masechet from the packed bookcase and trilled the Gemara's pleasant melody in a silent tone. He was hunched over it until late at night and no one dared to bother him at these moments.
During the lesson at the kloyze he knew how to examine and distinguish between the real diligent learners and the superficial learners. In his teaching he visited the common sense instead of using the method of dry and sterile debate. He also put an emphasis on logic.
He was very sad when he saw that I, his only son, was moving away from the Gemara. Therefore, he asked me to also add my good friend and taught us a page in the Gemara.
My father zl was an avid lover of Zion and told me about Theodor Herzl and his achievements. He especially appreciated Sokolov and enjoyed his witty newspaper articles. He also instilled in me a deep affection for Zion and taught me from the songs of Zion like Sham Bimkom Arazim, HaShushana and others.
He always contributed generously to charitable organizations, religious organizations and also to the Zionist funds.
The townspeople treated him with respect and affection because he was a humble man by nature. He loved people and pursued peace.
I remember that a quarrel broke out in the city during the elections for the city's rabbi and the holy Jewish community split into two rival camps. He was troubled by the controversy that broke out and worked very hard to make peace between the opposing sides. For that reason he was accepted by both parties.
A poetic spirit also nested in him. He especially liked the poetry of Bialik, and from time to time he recited sections from HaMatmid [The Talmud student] which expressed his way of life at the Yeshiva in Slabodka.
He gave Gemara lessons at the Hassidim Stiebel. He got closer to the Hassidut even though he was educated on the knees of the sworn opponents of the Hassidut in Lita. Most of his students were Hassidim and he got closer to the way of life of these simple and innocent people - craftsmen and small merchants, people with a special soul that their heart was full of joy even in times when the livelihood wasn't plentiful.
I remember Simchat Torah and how he danced between them during the Hakafot. His eyes sparkled with joy when he sang Hassidic songs with them with great devotion and enthusiasm.
However, sometimes I think that his heart felt that something bad was about to happen to him, that he foresaw his bitter end. During the Days of Awe he wrapped himself in his prayer shawl and extended the prayer Shemoneh Esrei. He continued to pray even after the congregation and the rabbi completed the prayer, and said the Viduy [confession] in silence out of heartbreak and restrained tears.
He poured his heart weeping and said the prayers Unethanneh Toqef and Aseret Harugei Malchut [The Ten Martyrs] in a trembling voice. Apparently, he felt that fate would be cruel to him, that he will not die of natural causes but in the hands of inhumane executioners, in one of the cruel deaths of the Ten Martyrs.
In the 1930s my father realized that many of the best youth were swept by the stream of Communism. He clearly understood that only the Zionist movement can save the youth from the clutches of Communism. Therefore, he agreed, without a choice, to part from me and to accept my immigration to Israel.
In his twilight days he also planned to immigrate to Israel. Despite the many difficulties, which involved in adjusting to a new life, he decided to rebuild everything in his old age. But Hitler's soldiers came and preceded him.
My beloved parents gave their pure souls into the hands of mass-murderers, and died for the sanctification of God's name with all martyrs.
May their memory be blessed and peace to their ashes. May God avenge their blood.
by Refael Weinstein
Translated by Sara Mages
He has done a lot for the benefit of Tarbut school. Day and night he made sure that poor children, who didn't have the means to pay tuition, will remain without a Hebrew national education. He, together with other members, the writer of these lines was also among them, has done a lot for the benefit of Hebrew education. He struggled diligently and persistently with the parents committee who objected to the right that was given to the poor to study at half the regular tuition at the aforementioned school. To cover the budget deficit he organized all sorts of activities - dramatic plays, special funds, dances and movies. He carried out his plans with devotion and stubbornness and devoted all of his energy to this noble cause.
It wasn't easy to recruit actors for these plays. Sometimes, it was necessary to persuade the parents, talk to the mothers' heart and ensure them that their daughters will return within an hour. Typically, the plays lasted for two hours or more.
He organized the society of stage enthusiasts. The revenue from the performances was divided between the educational organizations, HeHalutz and the library.
Betzalel Magidey stood, like a sentry at his post, in a constant effort for the benefit of the Zionist and cultural-national activity.
The wick of his life was cut short prematurely. He passed away at the age of 29. He was not able to fulfill his personal dream of settlement in Zion, and he always made sure that others would be the first to immigrate.
Few were like him among us in those days. He was a great friend who accomplished a lot. We will remember his deeds, his name and his memory are etched deep in our hearts.
May his soul be bound in the bond of the eternal life of our nation.
by Shoshana Pelavski
Translated by Sara Mages
|R' Ze'ev Wolf the Shamash|
The world of my father zl was in Beit Hamidrash. Not because he served the Torah all his life, also not because he was in the company of wise scholars and learned from them but because of his love to the building itself. He devoted his life and narrowed his being within its four walls.
We, the children, saw very little of him at home, among his family. And not only us, all the townspeople knew that R' Ze'ev Wolf the Shamash [beadle] is always in Beit Hamidrash, most hours of the day and until the still of the night,
Our mother, Pasha, sent us, the little ones, to see what father was doing in Beit Hamidrash because he was late to return home, forgot to fulfill the needs of a person and walked for days without a light meal.
When we were ordered, as mentioned, by our mother to visit our father, we found him
in the big Beit Hamidrash, walking quietly in the darkness of the building in order not to disturb its silence. He walked around the inner walls, sliding his hand on every object, running his fingers over the copper sink and the big handwashing cup, cleaning the reader's desk with a rag in his hand and polishing the Shiviti before him. Then, he passed between the rows of benches and peeked into the worshipers' cubicles, which were attached in an incline along the benches, to see if they were also clean and tidy. In this manner he walked and checked the house of his life every day.
Father, we turned to him in a low voice, father mother sent us to ask when you come home, the meal is getting cold.
If, at that time, R' Ze'ev Wolf was in a different world, or didn't feel that we arrived, he didn't say anything. He only looked at us with affection and a good smile spread on his bearded face. He put his finger on his lips, waved it and whispered: indeed, indeed… to himself, and we didn't know then if it was an expression of agreement or an expression of embarrassment.
In any case, father always agreed to our request and left with us. Our walk was a happy walk. Not that we, God forbid, acted recklessly, even though my brother, Pesach'ke, wouldn't oppose to it happy was our walk because all of us walked together, with our father, walking from a place of mitzvah and we might go back there tomorrow.
On the way home we passed by the store of our uncle, R' Yudah. Our uncle, R' Yudah, was also a Shamash in a Kloiz but, unlike my father, he didn't dissociate himself from the matters of the world and his livelihood was a leather shop in the street leading to the market. Our uncle knew the timing of his eldest brother and waited every day for the time of his arrival to greet him as he passed by the threshold of his brother's leather shop. It seemed to us, his escorts, his children, that this shop, which always smelled of tanning, is now slightly, slightly perfumed with the scent of the Torah.
And R' Yudah used to say:
You know, Velvel, my brother, only when the two of us are together in the leather shop, a large portion of the smell of tar and grease is taken from it and all this thanks to synagogues in which we are Shamashim …
Our mother, Pasha, had a small bedchamber in our big house. There, she engaged in the task of baking. After all, our livelihood wasn't provided by our father zl because, as our uncle R' Yudah used to say the cheeks shrink from the dew of heaven. Therefore, our mother was a woman of valor and from her came the fatness of the land. When mother saw father coming, she quickly wiped her hands at the edge of her apron, rushed to greet him and prepared the meal.
After Birkat HaMazon [grace after meals] father left for the big room. So was called in our house the room in which stood the big bookcase. R' Ze'ev Wolf the Shamash stood
before the bookcase and checked whether, God forbid, the sacred mixed with the secular. There were his books and our books.
Only in the book room father enjoyed two tables: sometimes he took the secular from the bookcase studied from Ahad Ha'am, read a chapter in HaTo'eh BeDarke HaAyyim by Peretz Smolenskin, and quenched his thirst from an article in Mei HaShilo'ach [living waters]. Later, as if he wanted to purify himself from excessive immersing in a secular book he took out the Gemara, sat at the table and started to study it. Father's practice was: he washed his hands between a secular book and a sacred book…
My father was silent. We never heard him raise his voice on us or on any other person. He barely spoke to us and yet, we had a feeling that nothing escaped from him. If there was a sick child at home, he spent a long hour by his bed. He shook his head and said nothing and as he left the house, he put a Golden (gold coin), his pay for a month, for the doctor and for other things needed for the body. During this act he used to say to mother: Pasha, invite the best doctor. In this statement he meant the young doctor, Dr. Epstein (who would be the founder and director of the first Hebrew Gymnasium in Vilna that was named after him after his death).
Doctor Epstein was noble, affable and respected the scholars. He was known for his great affection for children. It's told about him, that whenever he heard the cry of a child from a house on his way to visit his patients, he immediately entered that house, checked the child and endeared himself on him with words of praises and sweets that he kept in his doctor's case.
Doctor Epstein wrote one prescription in Latin, as is the custom of all doctors, and one in the Holy Language, and asked that the Hebrew version of the drug will be written in the long card that, in those days, was attached to the medicine bottle. Father zl was among those who honored the doctor and when he preached a sermon on the Sabbath about the long road of our people in the present of a Minyan of Zionists, my father left his synagogue, gave orders to his helper, and went with joy to savor the words of doctor Epstein the Zionist.
In 1914, when the first war broke out, our family left the city and arrived to Poltava. Father remained in Smorgon to guard his synagogue. All pleadings, even the intervention of the city's rabbi, R' Menashe Ginzburg, didn't help. He insisted I'm not leaving, God will have mercy.
Only after learning that the front was getting closer to Smorgon, we urgently summoned father to join us until the rage passed. From the great fire that burnt the city, from the ruins of a holy community, R' Ze'ev Wolf the Shamash rescued two Torah scrolls. One he
gave to a Jew who traveled with his family in a cart to Molodechno and from there to Minsk. He took the second book with him to Charkow [Kharkiv], where we moved from the city of Poltava. We lived in the big yard of our townsman, master Zukerman, the chief agent for the trade in leather in Smorgon, all of Greater Russia including the districts in the north and in the south. Many refugees of sword and fire, members of our city, gathered in this yard. In order not to cease prayer and Torah from the remnants of the community in exile, master Zukerman stood and built BeitMidrash in his yard, in terms of a sanctuary. Obviously, father returned to be its Shamash.
R' Ze'ev Wolf placed the book in the Holy Ark and asked to only read it in order to draw the radiance of the destroyed city on the members of his community and on himself. In Zukerman's Kloiz, in Charkow, they used to pray in a First Minyan, mostly on the Sabbath. Once, my father didn't return from BeitHamidrash after prayer. A long hour has passed and R' Ze'ev Wolf the Shamash was gone. At noon, they searched for the Shamash, maybe he went to a Mitzvah of joy but they didn't find him. The day darkened, three stars have already risen in the sky of Zukerman's yard and he hasn't returned. Concern entered our hearts and we left to search for our father throughout the city. He returned at a late hour.
Where was he?
It was a calm Sabbath. He left to visit all the synagogues, the kloizin and the shtiebelekh in the city of Charkow and walked from one house of God to the other. Looked and saw that indeed God is found in this place. Counted all the synagogues in the city and found out that there were 18 of them…
The war ended and we returned to Smorgon. The family dwindled. Mother passed away in Russia. Father returned to the ruins of his city. His synagogue was destroyed and until the ruins were rebuilt his world was also destroyed. At an old age he became be the chief Shamash in Smorgon.
When the beating intensified in Poland and the hatred of the Jews increased in all areas of life, father wanted to immigrate to EretzYisrael.
R' Ze'ev Wolf the Shamash turned to Rabbi Kook ztl. He knew him when he was a student in Smorgon Yeshiva. In his letter, the rabbi promised to make all the efforts to advance his immigration.
My father didn't live to do that. In 5694 he passed away in purity. On the Shiv'ah to his death his family found the exchange of letters between him and Rabbi Kook ztl. Many residents of the city came to comfort the bereaved and share their grief with the family. From them, some came repay debts…
How? It turned out that R' Ze'ev Wolf the Shamash was engaged in giving charity in secret all his life.
by Moshe Mekler
Translated by Sara Mages
|R' Meir Sofer Setam|
R' Meir Sofer Setam [the scribe] from Smorgon. R' Meir the scribe, or, as he was called by people, R' Meir the Hasid, was a well known figure in Smorgon. He was born in Vilna, a descendant of a family of learners and authors. His father - the preacher, was a diligent Torah scholar and the author of religious books. His brother, Peretz Wiernik, an author and journalist, was for many years the editor of Der Morgen Zshurnal [The Jewish Morning Journal] in New York. R' Meir was a wonderful figure, multicolored and rich in content. He was studious and knowledgeable in Hassidic literature. There wasn't a Hasidic book, from the days of Baal Shem Tov to authors of his time that he didn't purchase or obtain, read it and almost knew it by heart. After he unintentionally turned a Hasid (his family strongly opposed the Hassidut), he became one of the central pillars of Koidanov's Hassidim. After he settled in Smorgon he realized that his main mission was to bring communities together and spread the idea of the Hassidut to the public. He was gifted in all the talents required for this task: tremendous knowledge of the subject, was articulate and had a polished style. When he opened his mouth with words of Torah or Hassidut, and stories of Hasidim, he charmed his audience and kept his listeners in suspense. I remember that there were those who spent the whole night, until dawn, in his presence.
What he preached to his followers was mainly the value of joy and damage from sadness, because sadness is the mother of all sins. R' Meir saw in sadness the lack of vitality, submission and acceptance of fate. According to him, melancholy is the reason for apostasy.
And from here he came to the main objective of playing music and singing. He saw in music the revelation of God's will. He heard in it the music of creation, and believed that it has the power to release small matters and inferior issues from daily life. For that reason he held many parties at his home which excelled in singing and dancing to the depths of the soul. He prayed fervently and purposely because he considered it the main foundation of his being. This story, which I've heard from him, testifies to his devotion, faith and confidence. Once I was in agony and all kinds of sufferings - the pains of parenthood, etc. and wanted to pour my heart before the rabbi. I came to Koidanov on Friday, the eve of the Holly Sabbath, at 11 before noon, and before I finished my prayer I've been told that our holy and glorious rabbi, the Admor, may he live a good and long life, was sitting at his table. I entered to receive his greeting and he ordered me to wash my hands for the meal. As I sat at the table I arranged in my mind all the things that I was going to tell him. At that time our rabbi, the Admor, started to tell a story:
When the brothers, the holy R' Peretz author of Hapeliah, and his brother the Mohorosh [our teacher the rabbi Eliezer Shlomo] from Nikolsburg came for the first time to the Holy Maggid [preacher] from Mezhirichi and entered to receive his greeting, they asked him to tell them the meaning of the Gemara - Each person is bound to bless for the bad in the same way as for the good?. Is it possible? After all, from the good you feel good and from the bad you feel bad.I immediately realized that the honorable rabbi, the Admor, may he live a good and long life, felt my thoughts and this story served as a answer for everything that was in me. In this manner he infused his faith in his followers and taught them to overcome the ravages of life and their sufferings. R' Meir was immersed in religious ecstasy and thirst for God all his life, and hence his compassion for people .He lived up to his principles. His heart was full of sadness for people who had to take care of wives and sons and had no sources of income to support them and fulfill the practice of moral order: Share your bread with the hungry, because you saw the naked and covered him.
And the Holy Maggid said to them: I don't know how to reply you. Go to my Beit Midrash. There sits a man named Zusia and ask him. The respected holly Zusia was known to the entire world as a poor and needy man, oppressed with many difficult and bitter sufferings that were not like them around the world. The holy brothers entered Beit Hamidrash and said to him: our rabbi sent us to you, to rationalize and explain the meaning of the above mentioned Gemara. R' Zusia answered them and said: what the rabbi wants from me, how can I answer you? Such a question should be asked from a man that his situation is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but I, from the day of my birth to this day, feel very good and never had a bad moment, so I cannot know answer you on matters that don't concern me.
And the holly brothers understood that their holly rabbi sent them to R' Zusia because this holy man would give them the proper solution to their question.
Every month he received sensible amounts from his brother in America. When he received them, he set aside for charity, gave presents to the needy and benevolence to the poor, and on the next day he had nothing left. He never slept more than five hours a day, went to sleep at midnight and got up a three in the morning to study and read books.
He did his work, the scriber's work, with holiness and purity, owe and reverence, without uttering a word during his work, his writing.
I only a told very little about his activities and actions, I'm not the man who can describe the outstanding great man who spoke with fine words. It's a shame that his writings, which contained a treasure of thoughts and contemplation, were lost together with him and his family in Vilna in the great Holocaust of the Polish Jewry.
by Baruch Sutzkover
Translated by Sara Mages
Was born in Smorgon in 23.12.1900 to her parents, Ester Riva and R' Avraham Eliezer HaLevi Horvitz, who is known by the name Avraham Leizer the Hasid. At the age of 16 she, her parents and family, lived as refugees in Russia like all the people of Smorgon.
In Russia she married Aharon Shein from Smorgon, and in 1924 she returned to Smorgon as Berta Shein. They opened a shoe store until their immigration to Israel in 1935.
In Israel they settled in Hedera and as new immigrants started to get used to the new country. Berta, who had a lot of energy and wasn't able to manage in trading as she has done in Smorgon, worked for the first time in constriction and painting. In 1937, Berta returned to work in trade and opened a grocery store together with Reuven Rodensky. After her partner left the country and returned to Smorgon, Berta and her family remained in Israel and adapted to the conditions of the country.
In 1945, when the former residents of Smorgon in Israel came to the help of their brothers, the Holocaust survivors, it was natural that Berta was among the first. She was elected as a member of the Association
of Former Residents of Smorgon and since then, and until her last days, was its living spirit, the activist who activated others. Berta, who had a good memory, common sense and quick and right judgment, dedicated herself to the work of the association. She divided her time between the care of the family and the Association of Former Residents of Smorgon.
In 1949, the Shein family started to build their home. However, in 1950, her husband, Aharon Shein, passed away. Berta, the widow, that all the burden and worry of the home fell on her, also found the time needed for the association's work. Berta's difficult financial situation didn't prevent her from coming to the aid of the people of Smorgon, the Holocaust survivors, who arrived to Israel. Her house was open to all and those who needed help and advice, the depressed and the bitter, came to Berta and she helped everyone. Berta housed people in her home until they were able get an apartment. At her home they received shelter, food and clothes. Berta also organized weddings at her home for the survivors who came to Israel and had no one to help them. She was satisfied with little but helped others with generosity and kindness.
The burden that she had taken on herself impacted her health and in 1956 she became partially paralyzed in half of her body. Also, in this condition, when she wasn't in full health, she continued to devote herself to the help of others and saw it as a sacred work. At the end of her life, when she was no longer able to move, was confined to her house and later to bed, she showed interest and concern to the work of the association. Our heart ached when we saw her in her last days. Is this Berta, the energetic and full of life? Also, when it was already difficult for her to talk, she inquired about the work of the association.
All those who knew her and worked with her, and all those who have been helped by her, will remember her for the best.
She died in Hedera on 13 Tamuz, 5722, after a long and serious illness.
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