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[Pages 20-34]

My Hometown

Rabbi Yakov Landau, Av Beit Din[1] of B'nei B'rak Israel. Former Rabbi of Kurenets

Translated by Danny Koor and Eilat Gordin Levitan


In her image and her essence, Kurenets stood apart from her neighboring shtetls. A holy spirit engulfed her in all her events and its spiritual essence was embedded with the stems of the giants of spirit who guided her through many generations. A splendor of holiness spread on her Sabbaths, her holy days, and her festivals. How pleasant it was to experience the sounds of the approaching Shabbat at dusk on Friday. When Rabbi Shmuel Der Viner, the father of Shlomo Asna's, would leave my father's house (the Rabbi) to go to the central market, he would pass through all the stores in the center of town and announce in a special singing tone, “Ein shul ariyan (Into the synagogue).” And the Shabbat would spread its wings around the town and fill it with sacredness.

How I was filled with joy when I as a young boy stood by the gate of our house to see the scene. My father would say, “Reb Shmuel, it is time to announce Ein shul.” And I would closely follow Reb Shmuel to see how that as soon as he would announce it, all the merchants would close their shops, as a small storm would start. The shutters would be closed and the locks would be turned. Immediately this would be followed by a holy tranquility and peacefulness, and the town would robe itself in its most majestic Shabbat clothes.

And here we see coming from Myadel Street, Shimon from the brothers [Zimmerman]. He is going to the Beit Midrash, wearing a velvet hat and soon, from all corners of town, Jews dressed in Sabbath clothes rushed to the synagogue. Here comes Reb Yehuda Meir Freda's (Alperovich). He was a very learned Jew. And here comes Avraham the Tailor, who we called Avramtzik der Schneider, a very respectable looking person. And from another direction comes Reb Eli Muniz, with a Midrash Rabba under his arm. He would teach midrash before the assembled members of the central synagogue, De Nyer shtiebel. - The new Shtiebel. And here comes Moshe Nehemsik's, wearing a velvet yarmulke most of which can be seen from under his hat. And there makes an appearance, Cheikel Welwel, with him his youngest son Yakov Yoseleh, a devoted Lubavitch Hasid. His expression gleams from the splendor of Sabbath. And here is Mordechai Gurevich, husband of Freda, with his curly peyas, and his face is radiant, illuminated from the delight of Sabbath. Could anyone tell that this is the same Reb Mordechai that just a short time earlier was busy with selling iron goods to the gentiles? And here comes Mendel Zalman Roshka's. His hair is neatly combed and his essence is brimming with the refinement of the Sabbath.

In our minyan, my father would walk slowly from one side to the other and with a tune that was laden with piety and holiness, he would say, “Hodu and Patach Eliahu” before the minha prayer. In the minyan synagogue[2] simple oil lamps spread their lights, but still every corner shone splendidly in the reflection of Shabbat. And while the congregation starts saying their prayer, “Lehu neranena Lahshem, nariya letzur yishano” Come let us sing to God let us call out to the rock of our salvation, the heart would beam with elevated sentiments that would come to an apex at the passage “Mizmor Le David havu lashem bnei eilim.” A psalm of David, render unto heaven you sons of the powerful“ Kol hashem bakoach kol hashem chotzev lehavot eish. The voice of God is in power the voice of God is in splendor.” This psalm is said one sentence at a time, with a pause in between each verse, and the hearts would get more and more ecstatic when they reached the tune of “Leha Dodi.” It would not be sung with as regular tune, rather with a Hasidic melody and the prayers would go on, and the people would be filled with a thirst for more as they neared the height of joyfulness. In my early youth I would leave the minyan synagogue and go to the central market between the prayer of the Inauguration of the Sabbath and the evening prayer. At that point Reb Shlomo Asna's would read before the congregation from the book Beir Mayim Hayyim or Siddoro Shel Shabbat, but I wanted to become part of the holy silence that spread in the streets. To tell the truth, we didn't have to wait for Shabbat to feel the holiness around us. Early on Friday morning you could already feel the new holy face of the town. Smoke would rise high above the chimneys of the town, you could hear the sound of the Hakmasa while the women prepared the fish, and the wonderful smells of the Sabbath food would foretell the advent of the impending Sabbath.

On Fridays, as soon as the melamdim(teachers) would finish teaching the youth in the chadarim they would quickly go in town to collect from everyone the weekly tithes (donations) for the different charity organizations. One would be for the institution of Bikur Holim (which took care of the sick); here the Gabbai was Reb Abba Lubka's. Others would be collecting for the Gm'ch, which was a sort of savings and loan organization, it would be used for loans and in every big synagogue there would be a collection box for it.

Once a year, after Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim, there would be a big celebration where all the pledges that were not paid would be sold

There were a few teachers that before Sabbath would collect money for different Hasidic dynasties. For example, for Lubavitch, for Lyadi… Each one would come with his own notebook and on each page there would be a table, and each square would represent one week for all the people who gave donations. They would write in detail the exact amount; usually it would be one or two kopecks. So the teachers of the town would be busily running around town, amongst them Reb Yitzhak Moshe, Reb Avraham Yitzhak, Reb Yosef Leib, and Reb Moshe Baruch the Shamash. This would also add to the special spirit of Friday.


The Festivals

A saying that was repeated many times by Reb Mendel, son of Reb Yosef Zaev, the baker who lived in the shtetl Lebedove, was, “If you wanted to feel the true essence of Rosh Hashanah during the shofar blowing, you must always compare it with the shofar blowing of the Rabbi's minyan in Kurenets.”

I must agree with his assessment because what was experienced during the days before Yom Kippur in Kurenets is almost impossible to describe. I would like to point out that in Kurenets, people would not smoke on Rosh Hashanah although there was no clear rule against it. During Sabbath Shuva (The Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), they would never carry outdoors despite the fact that there was eiruv in the shtetl. I also liked to write about a very splendid custom that took place during the ten days of Penitence. In all the synagogues they would light huge candles made of wax that we would prepare specially in our house. When the time of “Shuvalicht” repentance lights would arrive, a certain woman would go from house to house and would announce to all the women in town that now it was time to prepare for “Shuvalicht”. On a set day, all the women in town would get up early and come to our house and throughout the entire day they were busy preparing candles. They would come and go through the entire day, taking turns, and each one of them took part in this important mitzvah. Heading the women was Bilka, the wife of Benny the Baker. The wax was always bought by my mother from Sarah Rachel, the wife of Avraham Mendel the Melamed, who had a small wax factory in their home. Once in a while Bilka would repeat, “Have you prepared (banged) wax?” Then she would say, “Have you prepared a wick?” each woman would do these two things. During the time of adding the wick, each woman would recite prayers for the souls of their relatives, and naming all the ones who had died, and also” the souls of the holy people who have fallen in the field and the forest.” Each woman would then put a donation for the enterprise on a plate that was specially put on the table for this purpose. Before leaving each woman would go to a special room to pour out her heart in prayer, and plead with tears before God. At dusk only Bilka would be left there and she would start preparing the actual candles. The melted wax was put in a huge pail with hot water until it became even softer and then she would make it into candles that were one and a half meters tall, and five centimeters thick, five candles for each one of the synagogues in town.

Before Shabbat Shuva, each Shamash came to our house to get the candle for his synagogue. The candle would be burn halfway during Shabbat Shuva, and the rest during Yom Kippur. I would also like to relate about another beautiful, special custom that our town would experience during Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah. It would start with the special enterprise Lehem Evyonim. In our town we would give real loaves of bread to the needy. The Gabbai of this enterprise was Reb Yosi Velvul, the baker, he would distribute the bread. During the day of Simhat Torah, a few volunteers would go around all the homes, blessing everyone with a passage, “Mi Sheberach”, and each family would promise to take care of distributing a certain amount of bread for the next year. Each week someone would go and collect the loaves of bread from each home. Sometimes people would give money instead of bread and the baker would then bake the bread on their account. When the volunteers for Lehem Evyonimn finished their rounds in town, they would come to our house to take part in the celebration of the festival. They would sit by the table for a meal that would last until after dark. Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals) would always be said in the evening[3].

Obviously there was also the enterprise of Kimcha d'Pischa[4] every year. My father, the Rabbi of blessed memory, would head this enterprise. He would go with one of the most prominent town members and together they would go to the houses of the well to do people and the generous people of the town, and then they would give to the needy, matzos, wine, and mead. The amount of matzos for each needy person was four kilograms. Prior to that on Purim, all around town there would be Purim spielers. They would ride horses dressed up as policemen and rode happily through town. Once they finished their parade, they would stop at our house for the Purim feast.


The spiritual leaders of the town, formulators of the spiritual character

In all the different aspects of life, you can see the distinct influence of the town's leaders. First and foremost, the pious brilliant, filled with knowledge and intelligence, Rav Avraham Meshulam; Zalman Landau from the lineage of the most prominent Rabbi of Israel, the Gaon Yehezkel Landau (author of the Noda Beyudah), and from the lineage of the“Hacham Zvi” who originally came from Brody. Long ago, there lived in Kurenets a wealthy man by the name of Itzha Raha's. Rav Zalman married his daughter when he was very young. Already at that point he was well known as a most amazing genius and even the most well-known, learned men would make testament that he was able to dispute and debate with the best scientists even in their own fields of expertise. When he heard of the well-known Hassidic Rebbe, author of the Tanya and Shulhan Arukh Harav[5] he was very drawn to him, so secretly he left together with his brother-in-law Leib, the father of Zalman Roshka's, to visit this Rebbe, and in spite of the fact that his mother-in-law chased after them to bring them back, they succeeded in reaching their destination.

On their return, Reb Zalman established the “minyan synagogue” that was named the Rabbi's Minyan, the same place that was destroyed by the Nazis, may their names be erased from memory. The first building that was put up in this location was destroyed by fire and my father rebuilt it. When that building caught fire again in 1925, my deceased brother Rabbi Shmuel Hillel of blessed memory rebuilt it. Zalman was amongst the main Hasidim of the “Admor Hazaken” and for that reason, his sons and grandsons had tremendous influence on the image of Jewish Kurenets which eventually became an overwhelmingly Chabad (Lubavitch) shtetl. Of the five synagogues in Kurenets, in four they prayed in the style of Ha'ari and only in the Beit Midrash did they continue in the Ashkenazi style. The pious Gaon, Reb Zalman Landau had two sons and one daughter. One was Reb Tzvi Hirsch, who was nicknamed Reb Hirscheleh Reb Zalman's. He was a merchant and had business connections with Konigsberg and would travel there often . He was splendid in piety and purity. In Kurenets they often repeated a passage first spoken by him, “A Jew can swap a calf for a young horse and live off the profit a whole week..” He once said to my father, of blessed memory, that in his opinion, one must donate ten percent to charity of money that one loses as well as from money that one earns. His sons were the pious Rabbi, Reb Avraham Landau, who was the father of Leah Sherl. When he lived in Kurenets he worked as a businessman, but later on he became Rabbi in the town of Zabin, and he was related to the Tzemach Tzedek[6]. His son in law, Reb Yakov, who was nicknamed Yakov Leah Sherl's, was a pious and learned Jew. The second son of Reb Hirsheleh was Rabbi Dan, who was the husband of the granddaughter of Tzemach Tzedek. The second son of Rabbi Zalman Landau was the adored Rabbi of our town, the genius, pious and renowned all over, Reb Mordechai Ziskind Zal, known by everyone as Reb Zishka. All the people of the town and surrounding area saw him as a most amazing man, and his name and his memory are held in deep respect. He was extremely pious towards God and very respectful to all people. Reb Zishka was a Hasid in the court of the Tzemach Tzedek, and was greatly loved by him, both on account of his father, the genius pious Zalman, but also for his own personality. As a Rabbi in our town, Reb Zishka was active until the year 1884. He didn't have any sons, only two daughters. One was Leah Margalit, the other was Cherna. He married his daughter Leah Margalit to my father, the Gaon Rabbi Moshe Leib Zal. He took his place as a Rabbi in Kurenets after he died. His daughter Cherna lived in Vilna. Rabbi Zishka passed away on Shabbat, the fourteenth of Sivan, 1884. They tell that before he passed away he got up and walked to the window and looked outside and said, “Ah sheina walt. Ah sheina walt A wonderful world.” Although he sat in his chair and didn't lie down, at certain points he felt that he was on the verge of death and a few times asked if the doctor Yehoshua Kremer was still present, since he was very worried that his soul would depart while there was still a Cohen in the house (Cohanim-Priests are not allowed to be in the presence of dead people). During the day when people asked him questions he said, “You must ask my son-in-law those questions because on the day of my death I cannot give answers anymore.” The manifest of the rabbinical transfer that was given to my father after he passed away started in those words…

The holy, who was light to our eyes, a crown to our head, went to Heaven[7]. We gathered here…

This Rabbinical transfer was written by the famous Hasid, Reb Yehoshua Castrol[8] the uncle of the shohet in our town, Nahum Castrol.

Rabbi Zishka loved my father and was very close to him, and as my father would say, he withheld nothing from him. For fourteen years, my father lived with him and he would converse with him about passages of the Torah and Hasidic tales everyday from the evening meal until 3 in the morning. He would also tell him the most intimate details of his life. He opened his soul to him. His love for my father was unending, While he was still alive he ordered my father to sign all the papers replacing him as Rabbi of Kurenets. The transfer to my father as a Rabbi of Kurenets is from Tuesday the 17th of Sivan in the year 5684 (1884). It seems that during the first days of mourning the Rabbinate was already transferred. When all the townspeople returned from the cemetery, they gathered and the heads of the community took my father as the Rabbi of the town.

My father the genius and pious Rabbi was born in the town Haluvakah. From his father's side he was from the dynasty of Shlah[9] and from his mother's side from the dynasty of Mahar'sha[10]. My paternal grand father was the pious Rabbi, Reb Schneur Zalman. He was an exemplary genius, and he was one of the important Hasidim in the court of Tzemach Tzedek. He was the son in law of the genius, important Rabbi Reb Leib Ha-Cohen, Av Beit Din of Haluvkah, who was nicknamed Reb Leibeleh Tsertele's. In his youth, my father was famous as a genius prodigy and all the Rabbis of the time wanted to take him as a son-in-law, but he chose the daughter of the well-known Hasid when he was 23. He got a letter of endorsement from some of the great Rabbis of this generation, amongst them the genius from Dinabourg (or Dvinsk) who wrote, “Although I usually avoid giving these kinds of endorsements, I felt obligated to give this endorsement to such a worthy person.” When he reached the age of 25 the genius Yeruham Leib from Minsk who was known as the Minsker Hagadol (the great Rabbi from Minsk), said about him, “When a smart man asks something, he gives half an answer in his question. when he asks something he gives a full answer in his question.” He was fluent in all the Talmud and commentaries and he had a detailed knowledge of all the different parts of Shulhan Aruch and Shelot and Teshuvot[11]. Already in the days when he lived with his father-in-law, he was well known as a wonderful teacher. His mouth was filled with pearls of wisdom and whoever heard him instructing in the Hasidic and the Chabad traditions would be drawn towards him by his tremendous charisma. He would travel to all the sons of Tzemach Tzedek and at the end of his days he traveled a few times to the Rashab[12], who deeply respected him and took note of his instructions. And if the way the community in Kurenets treated his father-in-law Reb Zishka Zal with respect and admiration, they treated my father as if he was father to all. The way he treated them back was as if all the townspeople were his children. Mordechai Gurevich (son of Zalman Uri and Sara nee Zimmerman Gurevich) told me that once he came to study with my father for his daily lessons and he was very depressed that day. My father, who was very close to him, could see from his face all that was bothering him, even down to the tiniest of details.

During the fire of 1910, three synagogues were burnt down, these three synagogues were situated in the shulhaif circle and my father spared no trouble in trying to rebuild them. Finally he was able to rebuild them with more modern buildings and he also was able to collect money for people who could not afford to rebuild their homes after the fire. From his first wife, the daughter of Reb Zishka, my father had two sons: Reb Avraham Schneur Zalman and Reb Yosef Zvi. He also had five daughters. When he was still young, his wife passed away and he then married my mother, Gita Fega nee Loria, also from a Hasidic family. Her father was first a Strashali Hasid and later a Hasid of the Tzemach Tzedek. They had two sons, my brother who passed away, Rabbi Shmuel Hillel Zal, and myself[13] (may I be spared for life).


From the customs of my father's house

Every festival people would come to our home, the home of the Rabbi, they would come on the last day of Passover, on the second day of Shavuot, and on Simhat Torah. During the day of Simhat Torah, people would come to visit from morning until late at night. Everyone wanted to join in the rejoicing. People would sing, “The Gemara asks a difficult question ay ay ay ay, the answer is ay ay ay ay ay.” And then someone else would start singing, “A dudla”, holding the edges of his coat in his hand. Mushka Hashia Riva's was especially adept at that song. He would sit on the floor, surrounded by a crowd of people standing around him, and he would start, in a very quiet voice, “Doo doo doo doo…” Slowly his voice would become louder and louder until he would get up and start dancing with all the people who surrounded him, and he would continue dancing and singing like this throughout the night. My father would intersperse passages from the Torah and clever Hasidic tales between the dancing.. On other festivals the visits from the townspeople would only last until noon. Every festival my house would be busy with preparations for the visits. The women would bake all kinds of cookies and sweets to give to the visitors. For Passover, they would bake goods made from potato flour because we didn't use gebrochts[14]. The potato flour would be made from scratch in our house. Already during the winter months they would make certain rooms of the house Kosher for Passover, especially my father's room, where they would prepare the potato flour. Beetroots were also prepared for Passover, as well as the Passover wine. Mainly Reb Shmuel Der Viner and Hirshel der Vaser Trager (water carrier) handled the preparation of the wine. A few days before Passover the house would be sparkling clean and all ready for the holiness of the festival. And if Passover happened to fall on Tuesday, then on Shabbat hagadol[15] we wouldn't eat at home, but in the shed that we had in the yard, a place where we stored the Hametz.

During regular weekdays we had visitors from the town everyday. There were certain designated hours to drink tea from the samovar, in the morning and in the afternoon. We would always have friends of the family coming to drink with us. Some of them would be invited specially; among them would be Daniel Yakov der Muler (the miller), a perfect example of a Lubavitch Hasid. Also Reb Yoel Nahum the Painter, who would sit studying in our minyan until someone would let him know it was time for tea. From my earliest days (2-3 years old) I can remember the image of Shmuel der Malach (the angel) coming to drink tea in the morning. I loved to sit on his lap. I would always ask him, “Why do they call you the Angel?” but he never answered my question. He was a very dear person. He was the court's envoy and he wrote all the contracts in those days. I saw many papers that my father had that he had signed. His sons were Efraim Der Malach, Israel Der Malach, who made an extremely impressive image when he would pray as chazzan for the congregation, and his third son Aaron who was nicknamed Arad Der Eiser. He first lived in a community called Eisa, but later his family moved to Kurenets to a house near that of Nehama Risha Alperovich.

Another person who would come to our house was Avraham David the butcher who I will tell you about later. Also Aron Yosef, the Scribe who was a Koidanov Hasid. He was the brother-in-law of Avraham Itza Shohel's. Mezuzot and tefillin written by him were very desired by everyone, but he didn't write too many of them despite the fact that he was very poor. He used to say that he surely would not be punished for mezuzot he refused to write. He was also a shamash in our minyan and he would write the divorce contracts for the community members.

In the summer of the year 1912, my father became sick and this was his last illness. He traveled to see doctors in Konigsberg, but they lost hope. When he returned he said, “Just look at my diagnosis and you will understand my situation.” The word spread in the town and everyone panicked. Everyone came to the house and I welcomed them saying, “In my opinion, all that is left for us to do is to pray.” There was nothing the doctors could do anymore so I told them to go to the synagogue and say passages from tehillim and continuously recite psalms. I was very young but since the community was so respectful of my father, they accepted what I said and the next day all the stores and businesses were shut down, and everyone gathered in the synagogues and with deep sadness as they prayed for mercy for the beloved Rabbi. When they finished reciting psalms, they went to the cemetery to ask mercy from the deceased souls. Also, many in the neighboring town of Vilejka were upset and came to Kurenets to ask for God's pity. Letters were sent to the Admor of Lubavitch in the name of the communities of Kurenets and Vilejka, asking him to ask pity from the Kingdom of Heaven. My father was very tormented with his sickness. This was at the end of the month of Av, but by the time Elul came, all of a sudden he was much better and a day later he rose from his bed, and on Rosh Hashanah that year he prayed in the synagogue and he also fasted on Yom Kippur. During that winter his situation greatly improved and he was like a new, healthy man. But on Passover the next year the situation was grave. And in Elul of 1913 he passed away.

When he was sick he kept expressing sorrow that he couldn't go to the Synagogue to arrive before the congregation, so they wouldn't have to stand up when he arrived. All his life he took care to reach the synagogue before the congregation. At 3 in the afternoon on his last day, he still instructed me in Torah. His passing away was almost like a Torah scroll being burned. Until his very last minute he remembered every passage of the Torah. He was laid to rest next to his father-in-law. I was pressed by friends of my father and theAdmor from Lubavitch to replace my father, in spite of my young age. The Admor of Lubavitch received members of the community like Shalom Yitzhak Baker, Mordechai Gurevich, and Leib Motosov in Lubavitch. I also went there and explained to the Admor how difficult it would be to accept the position but I couldn't change his mind, and with reluctance I took the job.

During that winter, Nahum Castrol the shohet became blind, and when I again went to Lubavitch to ask the Rebbe to let me leave Kurenets, I again received a refusal. The Admor expressed to me that Reb Nahum Castrol must not continue his job as a shohet. Reb Nahum Castrol who was also a Lubavitch Hasid had already visited the Rebbe some time earlier. So as soon as I returned I let everyone know about the Admor's orders and now there was a question of who should be the new shohet. As is usual in such cases, there was a dispute on the subject of who should be the shohet.. I brought R.Schraga to see if he could handle the job. R. Schraga later became the shohet of our town. Mendel Dinestein who was nicknamed Mendel Shmuel Naha's, greatly helped me. According to the rules, the person who was the karaka[16] was supposed to decide about the shohet and somehow Mendel by some kind of trickery was able to become the karaka during the bidding process for the job. So now he was responsible for giving the old shohet the money owed to him for his pension. The community sent a letter to the Admor asking his opinion if Reb Schraga should be the shohet, and once he sent his approval, Reb Schraga became the shohet.

In the month of Tishrei 1915, the Germans conquered our town. I was away at that point from Kurenets, and the war prevented me from returning until the Germans were pushed out of the area. At the point when I returned, I found out that all the cheder studies were cancelled during the war, and the youths were running freely in the streets. So I gathered a group of youths and started lessons with them in Talmud and bible. Later on, I sent a few of them to the Lubavitch yeshiva in Karachi, amongst them was Zalman, the son of Yitzhak Mikhail Alperovitch, and Berl, son of Binyamin Hirshel Gorfinkel. Both of them were very good students and became well known among the Chabad Hasidim. We also organized an assistance committee, Zemstava that distributed food to people in the area. I became the head of the local committee. I was very busy with this until I had to leave the town and go to Rostov, where the Chabad Rebbe lived in those days. From that time on I didn't go back to Kurenets until the year 1934.

In the winter of 1926, I was in Moscow, and I received a letter from the townspeople inviting me to return to Kurenets and to become the Rabbi there. The letter said:

Second of Shvat, 1926 (Taf Reish Pei Vav), Kurenets. To the honorable, splendid friend who is dear to our hearts and filled with goodness and honesty, Rabbi Yakov Landau. We would like our friend to come to you with a suggestion, since not too long ago Rabbi Noah left our town after he received a Rabbinical position in another town. All the townspeople came to an agreement to try to talk to the heart of our friend that maybe he will agree to return to our town and accept the Rabbinical position in our town, in spite of the fact that many good Rabbis inquire about the job every day, and all with excellent Rabbinical credentials, we would like to return the crown of old to our town, since you are from the pedigree of a family of Tzadikim, Rabbis who are part of the town's past. If you will return, maybe it will save our town's respect. Signed by Israel son of Zalman Pinhas Alperovich, Mordechai son of Zalman Uri Gurevich, Mendel son of Zalman Alperovich, Zalman Mendel son of Pinhas Tsipilevich, Shimon-Michal son of Shaul Hurwitz-Gurevich, Shimon Leib Zimmerman, Yakutiel Meir Hakoen Kremer, Menachem Mendel son of Shmuel N. Dinestein. We ask you to send us a telegram if you will be able to fulfill our request. Written by Mendel son of Shimon Alperovich, Zelig son of Meir-Michal Gvalman, and Dov-Bar Himmelfarb.

My heart at that point was far from accepting such an offer and I suggested they take my brother, Shmuel Hillel as a Rabbi, but this was not accomplished. In the month of Elul in 1934, on my way to Eretz Israel, I visited Kurenets and I met some of my old friends, the shohet Reb Schraga, Leib Motosov, Reb Yekutiel Meir Hakoen Kremer, Reb Mendel son of Shimon Alperovich, and others. Who could ever imagine in his worst nightmare what their fate would be in the future?




Respected Characters


Rabbi Yehuda son of Zusha Alperovich

I was about six or seven at the time when Yehuda Zusha's passed away. In spite of that I can clearly see his image in front of my eyes. He was an elevated person in all his actions, both physically and spiritually. I remember him from my father's house, the Rabbi Z-L. I remember that at that time the Chabad Rebbe from Lyadi came to us as the town invited him in the winter of 1889 or so. I still remember the excitement he had on his face during that visit! On the other hand I remember the darkness that spread in town on the day that Yehuda Zusha's passed away. The red eyes of my father, who was crying, I can remember until today. Reb Yehuda Zusha's was a very learned man, and a paragon of piety in his very essence. He made a very good living from a winery and an inn, Privana Lakava. I remember that once, on a market day, the house was filled with Christians and all of a sudden no one could find Reb Yehuda. Everyone started looking for him, and finally he was found sitting in the minyan synagogue that was in his backyard and was named after him “Yehuda's Minyan” (destroyed by fire in 1906 ). He was sitting in the minyan and writing Hasidic works. He didn't care at all that this was a market day and he should be busy with his merchandise. He was at that time in a totally different world, busying himself with the Holy Scripture.

On the last Simhat Torah of his life, he was extremely happy. I still remember him dancing on the table with excitement of the mitzvah, the happiness of the holiday was one of the last events that he took part in. At the beginning of the winter his soul passed away, to the deep mourning of every citizen of the town, from the young to the old, and his pure soul returned to its source.

kur024.jpg [10 KB]
Moshe Alperovitz,
grandson of Yehuda Alperovich


Other than the very well known Reb Yehuda Zusha's, Reb Leib Ephron was well known among the Koidanov Hasidim and Reb David Shihanover was a well known Lubavitch Hasid who was very clever and learned, there were other special people who were modest in their ways but were extremely special. Amongst the Melamedim (teachers) of the town, I must emphasize the special character of Reb Reuven Malisker. Not everyone was privileged to be accepted as a student at the cheder of Reuven. He had a very limited number of students, usually no more than 8, and normally more mature boys. For the sake of my respected father, I was accepted into this cheder when I was only six years old. Reb Reuven was very knowledgeable, and very well versed in the Halacha and grammar. He also had secular knowledge in medicine. Since his wife Frieda was sick, he would visit Professor Bora, who invented Borov Liquid. The professor became a close friend of his and taught him a lot about medicine. He had an extensive knowledge about common pharmaceuticals of the time so in Kurenets he was treated like a doctor.

There was another teacher named Yossi the Melamed. He was a very knowledgeable in Mishna and in general was very learned, pure in deed and honest in his ways. In Kurenets there was a Jew nicknamed Itzha Meir Der Koymen Karer. He was the father-in-law of Mikhail the forester from Myadel Street. Even when he was very, very old, he would still clean all the chimneys in town. Every time he would come to our minyan synagogue, he loved playing with me since I was a young child, and he would tell me about his life. When he was very young, he was a secretary of Reb Hirsheleh son of Reb Zalman. One time, when the family of Hirsheleh went to Lubavitch for the marriage of Reb Hirshel's son Dan to the granddaughter of Tzemach Tzedek, Reb Itzha Meir went with them. It was a very cold winter and his feet froze, and when he took off his boots and showed his legs to a doctor, the doctor said that he was going to die in a few days. When the Tzemach Tzedek came to visit him, Reb Itzhak Meir started crying. When the Rebbe asked, “Why are you crying?” he told him that the doctor said he had no more than a month to live. The Rabbi started admonishing him, saying, “Patak, patak. You will live for [so-and-so] years.” At the time Itzhak Meir told me this, his eyes filled with tears. He was already very old and he commented that according to the years the Rebbe gave him, he only had a short time to live. He said that when he left Lubavitch to go to Kurenets the Tzemach Tzedek blessed him, “Go in health.” By the time he entered Kurenets in the central market he was a healthy man. When his wife met him there, he asked her that she should go and help the family of Hirsheleh with their belongings and he would go home to rest. He dragged his legs along until he got home. He immediately lay by the oven and for a few months was bed ridden. He had surgery on his toes at one point, but in spite of all the problems, as soon as he became well he went on top of the houses' roofs to clean the chimneys until he reached old age. Every night between the hours of 2 and 3 am, he would run to the Beit Midrash and recite Psalms.


Reb Meir Shmuel

I knew him when he was very old and could hardly see. He was practically blind. During the daytime he would try to read a book, and had some difficulties, but at night he had regular lessons in Talmud with Yoel Nahum, the painter who prayed in our minyan. Despite the fact that he listened to whatever Nahum read, it was clear that he knew much more than Yoel Nahum. Every passage in the book was memorized by him. He was a Jew with special spiritual gifts, very religious. When he was younger he used to teach Talmud to the children. His living was made from a store that his wife ran. The store was in the middle of the central market, in a building that contained other stores. His wife would sell simple medicines and some kind of oil, but his main occupation was Torah studies.


Reb Meir-Bar der Einbender (Bookbinder)

The truth is he was not a professional bookbinder. The professional bookbinder was Reb Menachem, son of Zusia. It must be that he chose this profession since he was a deep thinker and he didn't want his work to disturb him in his deep thoughts. My brother Shmuel Hillel Z-l was right when he would comment every time we passed his house on Kosita, how can we not stop near this house where such a deep thinker lived? A person that in his very essence was a Chabad thinker. Every year he would make a pilgrimage to the Rebbe in Lubavitch, and that was the main event in his life. Once he was on a train to Lubavitch when he met a German Jew. The German Jew asked him, “Why are you wearing two hats?” He was referring to the kipa that Meir-Bar wore under his hat. The answer of Reb Meir-Bar was, “Since there are some Jews who don't even wear one hat, I feel that it's my duty to wear two.”


Reb Meir Tziras

During that time, the letters for Kurenets residents would arrive in Vilejka, which was 8 km away from Kurenets. Reb Meir was the unofficial postman who would walk to Vilejka every day to bring the letters. He got paid one kopeck for each letter, but his fate was not good since once in a while he would lose a letter along the way. I am absolutely sure that he would be in deep Hasidic thought during his walks and repeat passages of Hasidut that he heard from the Rebbe. It hurts to comprehend what little was given to Reb Meir in this world if you didn't know the pleasure that he had when he studied and comprehended the spiritual world during his deep prayers. On the Sabbath, while the rest of the community was busy with the Shabbat meal, he would still be standing in a corner of our minyan and would pray with a Hasidic tone that would bring deep spiritual awareness that would open his heart and let tears come to his eyes. Reb Meir was blessed to know the Tzemach Tzedek, and to hear from him Hasidic thoughts. I saw how his spirits would lift when he remembered the Tzemach Tzedek and all that he had heard from him. Tears would run down his face when he would remember how the Tzemach Tzedek would explain the passage “Yisa Hashem Panav Elecha May the Lord lift up his face towards you.” I don't know how he earned a living after they opened a post office in Kurenets. Although his wife taught young girls to read and write, it is very hard to believe that this was sufficient for a living. One thing is very clear, that until his last days when he was very, very old, he was loyal to his essence of Hasidut and tried very hard to understand the essence of it. He didn't care about his personal honor. He would even ask much younger men to explain Torah passages. He would also go to Lubavitch every year and would return with a large treasure of learning. Other than new works, he would bring new tunes. Each Shabbat he would come to our minyan to teach and to repeat tunes filled with yearning and love commitment to God.


Reb Heikl Velvel (Zeev) Alperovich

He was busy with Torah and Hasidut, which he studied deeply . Despite the fact that he was a merchant and for his business he would travel through the villages, he would always find time to learn Torah. The Christian farmers would tell that Vulfka would sit all night by the furnace and pray. This is how they understood it. Every day he would have a designated lesson in the Rambam, which he studied constantly. He was also one of the people who went to Lubavitch once a year and was amongst their Hasidim. He had a very important position in the community and would join my father in collecting for the Kimha dPisha. He was a very pleasant man and his heart was open to all generosity. Heikl Velvel was the brother-in-law of Reuven Malisker. It is very strange that in a short time both families passed away. Reb Reuven and his wife and Reb Heikl and his wife. Reb Heikl Velvel passed away all of a sudden: he went to sleep and never woke up. His wife passed away a week before, and shortly after they passed away their home was destroyed by fire.

Another person who did not stand out since he was very modest in his behavior was Shimon Michal, who was a Kapost Hasid. When he was young he lived in Kapost. He was a well-to-do man. He earned his money from selling flour. He was in all his essence a Hasidisher Yid; he would spend all his time in the minyan, and would not leave until he had studied a chapter of Tanya. He also loved to go deeply into Hasidic passages. During Shabbat, he immersed himself in the study of the Torah.

Another respected, well-to-do person was Reb Hetzkl Bina Simhas, the father of Mendel, Zalman, and Moshe. He would travel to the Rebbe in Lyadi and also had regular hours for studying Torah. He was very honest and pure in all his ways.

At that time, a person who became important in our town was Yekutiel Meir Hakoen Kremer. He was very God fearing and honest in his ways, and he would teach Mishna to the community of the old shtiebel. His father was Reb Yehoshuah Leib Hakoen Kremer the Melamed. Reb Y. Leib was very knowledgeable in all the Mishna and many times would repeat the Mishna by heart. All his sons were honest and God fearing people. Besides Yekutial Meir there was Nachman Yosef Kremer, Mendel Kremer, and Chaim Zalman Kremer. All of them were businessmen, and Yekutiel Meir was also a merchant. He had a flour store but he was still busy learning Torah. Whenever you passed by his store you could see that there was a book in his hand. He was the son-in-law of Reb Yehiel Yentes and lived in his house. His brothers-in-law were the son of Yakov Mendel Markon, the owner of the flourmill in the village Ivontsevich, near Kurenets. Another brother-in-law was Zishka, son of Shimon Alperovich. Everyone in Kurenets respected the family.


[9 KB]
Mendel Kremer son of Reb Yehoshuah Leib Hakoen Kremer
and wife Chana nee Eishiski. Perished in Kurenets on 9-9-1942


Amongst other modest Jews in town was Reb Meir Shalom Shulman, the shamash of the central synagogue, the Nyer Shtiebel. He was very knowledgeable in Jewish law and was appointed by my father to the upkeep of the Eiruv[17]. My father, the Rabbi Z-L, relied on him in this matter. Clearly, once in a while he would ask my father a question on this subject, but he knew how to ask a question as a wise man, already giving half of the answer in his question. He was appointed as the representative of the Rabbi in Vileyka, the principal town in the district, to write the births, marriages, and the people who passed away. He also knew the proper way to write all the names of the parties of all the marriages for the Ketuba. I remember that at one time, someone came to my father with a Ketuba written by someone else, and my father was very annoyed and dismissed this Ketuba since the names were not written correctly, and he told this shamash that the Ketuba must be written by Meir Shalom since Meir Shalom was very knowledgeable in grammar and language. I remember that he would read the Torah according to all the rules of punctuation and grammar.

Yoel Nachum the Painter enjoyed his job. His specialty was the dying of cloths. Still, he was busy day and night with the study of the Torah. In the morning, after the Shaharit Prayer, he would stay there long after the prayer ended to study, and each evening, he studied Talmud until the late night hours. I remember that one time he studied Torah in deep pain. Since he didn't want to stop his studies to attend to his pain, he drank kerosene.


kur026.jpg [10 KB]
Golda nee Shiff of Volozhin
wife of Mendel Alperovich



Footnotes

  1. Head or chief of rabbinical court; the position was usually synonymous with chief Rabbi of a town. Back
  2. The minyan synagogue was for the most learned and devout Hasidic Jews of the town. Back
  3. After the end of the festival. Back
  4. Collection of food for the needy before Passover. Back
  5. The Alter Rebbe founder of the Chabad dynasty also known as Admor Hazaken Shneur Zalman of Liadi 1746-1812. Back
  6. Tzemach Tzedek Menachem Mendel Schneerson,grandson of the Alter Rebbe. 1798-1866. Back
  7. Referring to the deceased Rabbi. Back
  8. He later moved to Latvia. Back
  9. Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz 1565-1630. Back
  10. Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edels 1555-1631. Back
  11. Codes of Jewish Law and Rabbinic responsa. Back
  12. Fifth Rebbe of Chabad 1860-1920. Back
  13. The author. Back
  14. Matza or matza meal that has come into contact with any liquid. Back
  15. The Shabbat before Passover. Back
  16. A government position. Back
  17. To allow the people to carry on Shabbat. Back


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