The overwhelming majority of the people of Slutsk were mithnagdim. They avoided the Chassidic practice of exaggeratedly lauding the miracles and wonders performed by this tzaddik or that saintly Rebbe. Despite this, the masses believed with perfect faith that there was some power inherent in their rabbis and righteous men; whatever they blessed was blessed He [the Almighty] fulfills the will of those who fear Him.
I remember how, as a child, I heard my mother tell of an event that amplified the greatness and righteousness of our Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer in the eyes of all the community. A Russian policeman had come to the home of the Rabbi with orders from the Chief of Police to carry out some act; refusal to do so would result in incarceration. The Rabbi was not intimidated and he refused to obey the order. The policeman forced the Rabbi to accompany him to the station, pulling him bodily. The policeman had seven sons. Soon after the outrageous event, his firstborn son suddenly took ill and died. After a few days, most of his other sons took ill and died, leaving only one son hovering between life and death. The bereaved policeman believed that the holy Rabbin was responsible for the tragedy, and came to beseech forgiveness. He entered the Rabbi's home, prostrated himself on the floor, wept, and pleaded that the Rabbi forgive him and pray for the recuperation of his young son. The Rabbi forgave him, and the son's health returned.
During the First World War, the joy of the Sukkot festival turned to melancholy. The number of battlefront casualties grew daily; the front moved closer and closer to Slutsk. The synagogues were full of worshippers, but a cloud of sadness enveloped the congregation was not a single ethrog in the synagogue. Because of the disruptions in travel, the Slutsk community had managed to acquire only two ethrogim that year, and these were placed in the homes of the rabbis. The Jews flowed to the homes of the two rabbis in order to fulfill the mitzvah of the four species. Father, of blessed memory, took me with him how we looked forward to observing the mitzvah of holding of the lulav in the home of Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer zl!
With the dethronement of Tsar Nicholai II, all the citizens, Jew and gentile alike, believed that a new order of total freedom and equality would replace the rotten regime. Young Jews burst out joyfully into the streets of Slutsk and conducted enthusiastic demonstrations, giving public voice to that which had been repressed in their hearts during the old order. In the processions marched the different Zionist organizations and the members of the Jewish Socialist Bund. The former marched arm in arm, the blue and white flag leading the companies, all singing with great fervor Sham BeEretz Chamdat Avot There In the Fathers' Beloved Land and Se'oo Tsiona Nes VaDegel Raise the Banner and the Flag to Zion. etc. The Bundists also marched proudly, their red banner waving, singing the Bundist Vow and the Marseilles.
Never had the Jews enjoyed such good days. The city elders were fearful lest the youth be swept up in the currents of the revolution, distancing themselves completely from the tradition of their parents. As a preventative measure, it was decided to establish a modern, religious high school. In order to attract the youth, it was decided that the pupils would wear special uniforms, with bright brass buttons embossed with a Jewish emblem. These pupils would not be inferior to their companions in the Russian gymnasium, neither scholastically nor in appearance; they would even surpass them, thanks to their Jewish studies.
The idea quickly won adherents, arousing the envy of youth like myself who had been brought up exclusively on the knees of Torah. I confess without embarrassment, that even during the days of the Tsar, I was envious of my friends who studied in high school. I was comforted with the projected establishment of the school for Torah and science, in which I would be able to study both Torah and science, and in my school uniform I would externally resemble the gymnasium pupils. I revealed my secret desire to my revered father, and his face took on a somber look. We're going to talk to the Rabbi. Abba told the rabbi of my intentions. The Rabbi lovingly stroked my cheek and said: Such a school is a necessity for boys whose Judaism is threatened by the wave of the revolution. It is to be feared that, because of the new freedom, the boys will grow further apart from the bosom of their parents, and it is important to draw them close and to keep them in the framework of traditional life. But a boy such as yourself, educated and raised in a home marked by Torah and fear of God why should you desire such a school, in which the Torah studies are limited, and the holy and profane are intertwined? Go back to the Yeshiva, and there you will find your world.
These simple and heartfelt words, lovingly spoken in a concealed vein of worry, penetrated deep into my heart, and I ceased to dream about gymnasium, about uniforms and brass buttons. (Incidentally, tremendous effort was invested in the establishment of this school; unfortunately, the tumultuous events that suddenly blackened the skies of Russian Jewry prevented realization of the plan).
The honeymoon of the revolution witnessed great fermentation in the Jewish community. During the Tsarist regime, because of fear of the police who kept track of the behavior of the community leadership, it was difficult to realize the yearning for free personal and communal expression. No sooner was the arm of oppression broken and the last of the Romanovs gone down in defeat, then great forces burst forth onto the Jewish street. I remember how the city was in tumult at the approach of elections to the Kehillah and the Founding Meeting. Agudath Yisrael appeared as an organized body. The Zionists and the Bund also conducted vigorous campaigns. The air was full of slogans; posters were plastered on walls and pillars. In the center of the city, on the Shosai, the Orthodox raised a large poster which described the aged and the young carrying a Torah scroll in their arms, marching up a path to the light of a new sun, which shone in the skies of Jewry. Hundreds of men and women, taking their Shabbat noon walk, would stop and stare in wonderment, impressed by the religious campaigning, or perhaps just surprised by the very fact that religious Jews publicly take positions on political issues which had previously been considered unimportant.
The synagogues also provided platforms for the masses during the campaign. I see, as though standing before me and alive, in front of the Ark of the Law, Reb Zelig of Starobin (Rabbi Zelig Portman), one of the Slutsk Yeshiva's finest students (He eventually died in New York). He spoke with fiery enthusiasm, holding his audience spellbound. Rabbi Avraham Yitchak Shisgal, zl, spoke with polished style, with sweet and clear intonation. The Yeshiva Head, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, may he be set aside for long life, stands on the pulpit, words of flame shooting from his mouth. The Rabbi of Slutsk, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, ztl, his noble appearance radiating gentleness, would occasionally appear among the speakers.
I remember how, on a winter night, a large crowd gathered in the Great Beit Midrash to hear the speakers or to heckle. The rabbi had barely ascended the pulpit and begun to speak when a few arrogant young men began to harass him with interruptions. The rabbi answer softly, as though reciting the Talmud before his students: Let them disturb all they want; this will not harm us, and continued with his speech.
The First World War, which brought in its wake severe problems and great destruction in all branches of life, hit the yeshiva Etz Hayyim of Slutsk very hard. Military conscription, damaged roads, and the dangers characteristic of emergency situations, diminished the number of pupils.
The authorities expropriated the spacious yeshiva building, and the yeshiva was forced to go into exile, first to the Tailors' Synagogue, then to the synagogue named after Reb Isserke. I recall those moments of exultation that beat in our hearts when the yeshiva building was later evacuated and we were able to return to our 'home.' The number of pupils increased, but there was a dearth of Talmud texts; without texts, how does one learn Talmud? The inventory of the booksellers emptied out; the connection with publishers of religious books was severed; pupils rushed to the city's synagogues to try and obtain Tractate Gittin from the gabbaim. Some were lucky enough to obtain a tome whether on loan or by full payment from private sources.
My companion, Yitchak Sochalitsky (currently in Israel), and I went from synagogue to synagogue, searching unsuccessfully. Suddenly an idea! The volumes of the Lyakhovichi refugees! When the Jews of Lyakhovichi fled the terrors of the approaching war, they took their Torah with them; tomes of Talmud, Poskim, and Responsa. The books were loaded on wagons and brought to Slutsk. Since there was lack of space in private homes to house this large and valuable treasure, the refugees agreed to store all the books on the windowsills of the Cold Synagogue.
We set our eyes on the Gittin volumes of this treasure, but two obstacles blocked our way. One, how does one climb to so great a height? Two, may one take books without authorization? For a response to the second question, we approached the rabbi. He walked back and forth, sunk in thought, and, after consideration, rendered his decision: It is permissible to take them, on the proviso that we intend to return them. The serious look on the rabbi's face indicated that it was very difficult for him to decide on his own. It appears that he suggested that we also confer with Reb Moishe, one of the senior yeshiva students; he certainly would understand the pressing need.
Reb Moishe was an outstanding scholar and a noble personality who was later, in the beginning of the 20's, appointed rabbi in Kletsk. Rumor has it that the Nazis murdered him.
I recall my transgressions. We looked for Reb Moishe of Lyakhovichi that day, but could not locate him. We got to work, assuming that we would receive post facto approval. The mission had to be executed on Shabbat, because on weekdays the synagogue was closed. We entered the synagogue during the afternoon Mincha service, opened some side doors and left them slightly ajar, so that the shamas would not notice them. When the congregants finished Mincha and entered the side rooms in order to chant Psalms and the Maariv service, we left the synagogue, sneaking in later through one of the opened doors. Now we had to overcome the main obstacle. We placed bench upon bench, stender upon stender, and then scaled our wobbly ladder. Finally, right before dusk, we found two volumes of Gittin, Vilna edition, beautifully bound. We descended safely, and returned the benches and stenders to their places.
The next day we returned, ashamed, to the Rabbi's home. Fortunately, Reb Moishe of Lyakhovichi was present. We told him the whole story. Reb Moshe listened with a smile on his lips and approved our action. Our consciences were relieved of a heavy burden.
On the morrow, the noble figure of the Rabbi appeared in the Yeshiva entrance. He entered unhurriedly, exchanged words with a few of the students, as though he were one of them; he then walked back and forth, engrossed in thought. When he sat down, my companion and I, with hearts full of both fear and joy, approached, and our entrance exam began. The Rabbi did not ask difficult questions, nor did he indulge in intricate pilpul; he decided that we were capable of independent self-study.
Well do I remember that winter day, when the Slutsk yeshiva went off to exile, to Kletsk. A treaty between the Bolsheviks and the Poles transferred Slutsk to Soviet rule. Reb Aharon Kotler, may he live to long and good years, and our family, assisted by a few of the senior students, loaded their belongings on the wagon. They, themselves, went on foot, heads bowed, souls sad. The Yeshiva Etz Hayyim of Slutsk went into exile, but the exile was not total. A substantial minority of students remained. Supervised by the city Rabbi and the spiritual mentor, Rabbi Asher Sandomirsky, they remained to continue the holy work in the city, despite the foreseen difficulties and dangers. Thus was the body of the Yeshiva cleft in two.
Before long the Slutsk students began to feel the pressures of the Soviet regime, and they found it necessary to steal the border and move to Kletsk. Thanks to experienced smugglers, this was not an involved operation, but it did entail dangers. Some boys were apprehended by the Bolshevik Border Police and accused of counter-revolutionary activity. Rumor had it that some of the students were arrested by the Polish Border Police, sentenced to incarceration, lashes, and torture.
When my time for departure arrived, I was afraid of being caught, and shared my fears with the Rabbi. My apprehension touched his heart, and he considered what could he do for me. Finally he decided to give me a letter, written in Polish, to the effect that he knew me to be an honest young man, a student in his Yeshiva. The Rabbi thought that such a document might lighten my punishment should I God forbid be caught by the Polish Border Police. A scribe proficient in Polish penned the document in a clear cursive script, and the Rabbi signed.
At the time, I did not appreciate how much the Rabbi had endangered himself by giving me this letter. Had I been apprehended by Soviet guards with the letter in my possession, they certainly would have accused the Rabbi of aiding young men to flee from Russia to Poland. As it was, the Soviet authorities had already set their suspicious sights upon him. (He, was, in fact, forced to escape into Poland a month later). Yet, despite his precarious position, he gave me the document with a blessing that I succeed in safely reaching my destination.
Until this day, I am amazed. Is it possible that he was not aware of the
danger, and endangered his own life in order to save a Jewish soul? Perhaps he
was well aware, but still he put his life in danger. He was certain that, with
God's help, no evil would befall him.
He taught Talmud and Bible to the fourth grade of the city Talmud Torah, instilling the fear of God in his pupils, along with the other teachers in town. My friend, the poet Ephraim Lissitsky, told me that he obtained his knowledge of Hebrew grammar from Kadish the Melamed. In addition to his work in the Talmud Torah, Reb Kadish taught adults in the Kapashker Synagogue.
Mother told me that he used to teach the children of Reb Shmuel Leibowitz in the neighboring village of Podelipseh. (One of them, Reb Boruch Ber, zl, served as rabbi in Halosk). He owned a farm in the middle of the town and paid Grandfather in part with various crops including a wagonload of potatoes, which provided food for a long time. Mother and her brothers once transferred potatoes to the cellar by the light of a kerosene lantern that hung from a wall. Unfortunately, the lantern fell and the kerosene spilled on the potatoes. But the family ate the potatoes down to the last bite, despite the foul kerosene smell so great was the family's poverty.
Grandfather used to walk by foot to and from the estate of Reb Shmuel. Once, in winter, the ice broke beneath him, and had farmers not heard his cries and rushed to his rescue, he would have drowned in the river.
His last years were difficult ones. The city passed back and forth a number of times Russians to Poles, Poles to Russians. Once, during Soviet rule, he was discovered by a Jewish renegade teaching Torah to two grandchildren in the Kapashker Synagogue, and was arrested. He stood trial but was soon released because of his very old age. In the town it was said that both the informer and the judge were former pupils of his.
When our family emigrated to the United States, we urged him to come along. He deliberated, but finally declined, preferring to spend his final years in the city of his birth among other family members.
In his letters to us, he never complained. His youngest daughter and her husband provided him with respectable support. He was happy in the knowledge that his children and grandchildren continued to engage in Torah and mitzvot even in America.
On the seventh day of Pesach, 5686 (1926), he died, at the age of 75. The Jews
of Slutsk paid him great honor, eulogized him as he deserved, and brought him
to eternal rest among the most respected members of the community.
He chose not to make the Torah his means of livelihood. He did not return to the rabbinate upon coming back to Slutsk. He tried his hand at business, but since he never really understood the ways of commerce, he made nothing. Most of his time was spent in the study of Torah and books of Jewish ethics.
The outbreak of World War I opened many opportunities for massive assistance to Jews in distress. Abba took upon himself the responsibility for helping unfortunate co-religionists who suffered effects of the war. This was the acme of his activities during those days of awe. The large local population of paupers was swollen by refugees who fled border towns entire families lacking all necessities, some of them affluent Jews who had lost their fortunes, women whose husbands had been conscripted into army service, leaving them and their children destitute, without means of support.
Infectious illnesses swept through the town. The problems of providing food, clothing, shelter, and medicine for the refugees occupied the energies of the triumvirate which devoted itself to public aid: Dr. Shildkraut, father and patron to all the inhabitants of the town, Reb Yeshaya Mendel Deretzin, an energetic public figure with a noble heart, and my father and teacher.
Daily they would supply flour or bread to the needy. Every Friday morning they would distribute two challahs for lechem mishneh for the Shabbat meals. (If my memory does not deceive me, the distribution took place in the Linat Tzedek office in the Cold Shul.). Father would 'hide' a few challahs to give secretly to householders who had lost everything, or to scholars and members of prominent families, so as to spare them the embarrassment of waiting in the queue.
Although father was rigid in religious matters, he valued the study of the Hebrew language and Jewish literature, and did not prevent me from studying Tanakh and reading modern Hebrew literature.
With the Bolshevik revolution, the situation in the city took a turn for the worse. The war between the Bolsheviks and the Poles brought ruination. When the former advanced, the town faced the danger of starvation, illness, and fear for the future of religious life. When the Poles advanced, life itself was threatened. The troops of the Lerchikim and the Poznatchikim molested Jews, killed them, wounded them, and plucked beards. Jews were hurled from trains. Many were murdered by hooligans in neighboring villages and brought to Slutsk for burial. Father fled to America. After three years he was able to bring over his family. But his connection with Slutsk did not cease; he helped support the yeshivas in Slutsk and in Kletsk. This is attested to by letters in my possession written by Reb Aharon Kotler and Reb Asher Sandomirsky, who was spiritual mentor in the Etz Chayim of Slutsk.
The following is a portion of a letter from the latter, dated 24 Tammuz 5683, after Reb Isser Zalman had been forced to leave:
There are about 100 Torah scholars who sacrifice themselves, just as did our great leaders and sages of old in the days of the evil decrees. We can say of them, 'Should a man die in the tent ' [Midrash exegesis reads this as referring to "the tent of Torah", i.e., one who devotes his total self to the study of Torah]. This institution is the largest and most important, the sole remnant, which remains in all our land God forbid that this holy institution be destroyed because of material causes.
Father died in New York in 1935.
[Note by Kadish Goldberg, grandson and translator: After a short period as rabbi of Derby and Ansonia, Connecticut, my grandfather served as rabbi for the Orthodox synagogues in South Brooklyn, New York.]
In winter he would appear in the patient's home, dressed in a fine fur coat, with a fur cap on his head. He looked like a Polish nobleman, but actually there stood before you a Jew who loved his poor brothers, and rushed to their aid in times of distress. In education and appearance he differed from the Jewish masses, but he understood their feelings and psychology; he spoke their language, and he came close to them.
The poet, Ephraim Lissitsky, told me in New Orleans, how he fell ill with malaria as a youngster. He visited Dr. Shildkraut before the 9th of Av. The doctor commanded him not to refrain from eating meat.
For the welfare of the city's indigent, Dr. Shildkraut placed a closed contribution box in his waiting room, into which patients inserted the doctor's fees, each according to his ability. Sometimes, after examining a poor patient at his home, he would slip unnoticed a coin beneath the pillow. Upon leaving, he would say: I left a prescription under the pillow, and I wish the patient a full recovery.
He liked to jokingly say that one should believe in techiyas hameisim, the resurrection of the dead. If a Jew can eat a large serving of cholent, take a deep nap and still rise healthy and whole is this not veritably a resurrection of the dead?
Dr. Shildkraut was not a synagogue goer. But on Yom Kippur, he would come to the synagogue for the closing Neila service.
After the October Revolution, a plague of dysentery erupted. The situation was difficult. Many fell sick. Few doctors and little medicine were available. Medicines that were available were expensive. The gravest problem was lack of food to strengthen the body, and starvation claimed many victims. Dr. Shildkraut worked day and night without stop, not caring for his own health.
One morning, pairs of soldiers spread throughout the city, conducting searches. Officially, the searches were for contraband, but once set loose, the brigands did not differentiate between forbidden and unforbidden; they took all that came to hand. A great tumult arose; there was no one to halt the plunder. Suddenly, as if a miracle had occurred, the searches ceased. Rumor had it that Dr. Shildkraut had rushed a telegram to the authorities in Moscow, and from there an order was issued to stop the searches.
The above incident is deeply engraved in my memory, because a few days later, I went with Mother to one of the warehouses, where we signed a declaration that two sacks of flour had been confiscated, and the plunder was returned.
The battles between the Russians and the Poles over Slutsk left the community totally impoverished. There was no choice but to turn to our brothers across the ocean with pleas for help for looted, suffering Slutsk. The three heads of the community the two rabbis and Dr. Shildkraut sent a Plea To Our Brethren In The United States. Published in Hatsfira on 24 November 1920, it read:
A Call For Help From the Jewish Community of Slutsk
Our brothers, hear us! Throughout the years of war, we suffered greatly, many misfortunes passed over us; we passed from regime to regime, our situation changing again and again. All sorts of disaster befell us. Our lives were in danger, and the fear of death was upon us. Stores were closed. The past four months brought great poverty. Travel came to a stop; we remained unclothed; we were all plundered. Recently we saw with our own eyes the blade of the two-edged sword, for the war was waged within the city itself. Arrows flew overhead, arrows of death, explosive arrows. Houses were destroyed, many people were wounded, many killed. Fires broke out throughout the city. The wall of the bathhouse was consumed by fire. The wall of the community and stores went up in flame. All institutions of charity, the orphanage, the old folks home, and the hospital all are in a deplorable state, without food, without clothing. Aged and young stretch out their hands for help. We have not the strength to meet their needs, not even with bread and water. The schools have closed down, for lack of salaries for teachers and of firewood for heating. They walk the streets, hungry, barefoot and unclothed, seeking help. But who can help them? For we lack everything. Householders whose hands were once open to help those who ask and beg, now themselves have become those who ask and beg.
Now, our brothers, our own flesh and blood in America, our eyes are turned to you, our hands outstretched: Help us in our distress. You know what you must do. Hurry, tarry not, for we have no strength to do anything. We lie before you like a stone that has no one to turn it over; it is your obligation to save us.
Sunday, 27 Cheshvan 5681, Slutsk Dr. L. Shildkraut Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, Head of the Beth Din and the Yeshiva Our Rabbi and Mentor, Rabbi Meir
Funds should be sent to the Slutsk Community through the Community of Warsaw.
The news that Dr. Shildkraut had suddenly fallen critically ill spread rapidly. That morning became sevenfold more painful when word came that Dr. Shildkraut was no more. Crowds flowed from all corners of the city to accompany him to his final rest. His coffin was brought out to the street, and a great silence hung over all. Thousands of spectators stood, silent and grieving. The huge mass stirred, the procession began. His coffin was carried on shoulders to the large modern hospital, and from there to the old Hekdesh, where lay sick indigent Jews, whom he had treated for decades.
At the cemetery, he was eulogized by Rabbi Avraham Yitchak Shisgal, zl, a
student of the yeshivas of Slutsk and Kletsk. He had barely begun to speak,
with great emotion and sad voice
we had a precious pearl, and it
is lost to us
and immediately all groaned and wept. On of the
speakers, Rabbi Yosef Peimer zl, praised the deceased and said that in
his life he sacrificed himself upon the altar of his brothers and fellow
citizens, and now he was like a korban olah,”
a sacrifice offered totally to God. Upon hearing this, one who denied
the covenant jumped up, as though bitten by a snake, and publicly
insulted the rabbi. A scandal almost erupted at the graveside, but the Rabbi,
despite his humility and shyness, was not deterred by the insolent fellow, and
continued to eulogize the saintly doctor.
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