Avraham Abir (Rudnik)
Translated by Meir Bulman
The life of my father, and his story, were near and dear to my heart more than my own soul, and that fact is what deterred me from wanting to summarize in a writing what I remember and what I have heard from others.
From a young age my father excelled in talent and intelligence, good taste, and alertness and loyalty of heart. Everyone expected a great future for him. At an older age he was educated at the Volozhin Yeshiva (he studied alongside a young C.N. Bialik.) He then continued his studies at the Kovne Kollel and was ordained as a rabbi by the great Rabbi Shlomo HaCohen from Vilne, the President of the Rabbinic Court in Kovne Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Rabinovitsh and the President of the Slabodke Court the great Rabbi Moshe Donshevski.
My father's fatherinlaw (my grandfather) was the great Rabbi Avraham Abali, Varzhan Rabbinic Court President, author of the Ahavat Etan commentary on the Mishna by Re'em Publishers. Grandfather is also mentioned in the book Ohelei Shem about the great rabbis of Russia.
My father's first steps in the rabbinate were in Horodok, near Byalistock, a wool manufacturing town, the home of the Chief Town Rabbi Nissan Broyde, a famous rabbi and activist in the Hovevei Zion movement, by whom he was very much influenced in rabbinical administration.
My fatherinlaw Rabbi Shmuel Avinoam (Zuckerman) who lived then in Horodok, says of him in his memoirs, In those days, the Great Rabbi Yosef became ill. Before the doctors sent him abroad, he invited the ordained Rabbi Yosef Rudnik, a man of great traits and good deeds, to overlook the rabbinate in his absence. In a short time, Rabbi Yosef managed to become favored and acquired the admiration and hearts of the town residents, both from the devout and the more liberally minded, rich, and poor alike. We, the young Zionists, established a Talmud club in the Zionist Council house, and Rabbi Yosef volunteered to conduct classes. His classes were so interesting that in a short time the number of listeners increased significantly enough that the large hall was too small to contain everyone, and many listened through open windows. That was because his explanations were simple, full of content, palatable, and also spiced with allegory and contemporary matters in the right places.
Those classes made a deep impression on me and many of my friends, who at that time were beginning to take a genuine interest in Talmud, leaving an unforgettable mark on their souls and consciousness. I will never forget the expression of joy on [the faces of] many of the listeners, who found a light in the Talmud which they had forgotten about for years, and if they had remembered seemed tasteless and dry. When they now saw proof of how much sense and logic there was to [the Talmud], it seemed like they had found a treasure, and they would often express those feelings afterwards.
After Rabbi Nissan passed away many of the town residents demanded that Rabbi Yosef be appointed town rabbi, but Rabbi Yosef himself was among those who proposed finding a husband for the Rabbi's oldest daughter who would be worthy of the honor of chief town rabbi, and with that the question of the large orphaned family would be solved as well. And so they did.
The bond between Rabbi Nissan's family and my father's family continued for many years even after my father left Horodok, including contacts with his brother Rabbi Shlomo Meirson (who was chairman of the Torah Council for many years) who later brought Rabbi Nissan's daughter and her children to Israel and took an interest in their future until the children matured and settled in Israel.
After he completed his role in Horodok, my father was appointed rabbi at the town of Bilitza. There, his talent and understanding in community administration were uncovered. Under the harsh conditions of the Pale of Settlement, where concerns about economic wellbeing were elevated, where life was not protected from the danger of an attack by hostile Christians, and where malicious authorities sought to restrict and torment Jews, the role of town rabbi was very difficult. Aside from religious matters he also cared for other community matters, for the poor, for victims of fate, for the welfare and charitable institutions, Bikur Holim, Linat Zedek, Gemilut Hesed, the burial society, the religious schools, as well as for the Torah scholars: the Talmud Society, the Ein Yaakov, the Mishnah, and so forth. He was both the initiator and [operational] executive, because heads of household were busied by making a living and only few could be devoted to community matters.
Educating the Children of Israel in the ways of Torah and its labors was his main goal in life and he devoted much of his strength and funds to sending the talented to yeshiva. For those who did not fit that role he would ensure they could study a profession. Rabbi Sheftel the ShoeCraftsman from Bilitza said at the funeral that when his son Yerakhmiel departed for yeshiva, he went to the rabbi to bid him farewell, and when he reached to shake his hand, a metallic object rolled into his hand. The boy was confused and, sensing this, the rabbi told him, Don't worry, dear, take the money, it will be of help to you in a strange place.
My aunt, Ruth Shurin (U.S.) said that when he would donate to charity from his own funds he would give the money without counting it first. When he was asked, Rabbi, why do you do that? he replied, Why should I count it? The pauper will count!
My father objected to the longwinded debate method of study customary in Lithuanian yeshivas, where even at a younger age the students were forcefed additional commentary and longwinded debate while ignoring the core, standard interpretation of the Talmud. According to his method, the pupil should begin with standard interpretation, then study added material pertaining to the standard interpretation, and once the student had already studied his fair share of Talmudic matters, then could be studied all the additional commentary.
He would say that students could find the answer to the commentator's question on the first page if his studies progressed to the tenth page. He did not send me and friends my age to the yeshiva for younger ages, but brought us to the olderagerange Radin Yeshiva, where, following a consultation with the supervisor Rabbi Eliezer Kaplan, a teacher among the excellent students was designated for each younger student who taught us separately the Talmud without complex commentary. The truth of his claims about the study method was proven because we made such progress that after a single year of study I was accepted to the upperclass at Rabbi Elchonen Wasserman's Yeshiva, whose study method was also based on standard interpretation excluding complex debate.
All throughout my stay at the yeshiva my father funded me generously. I did not have to rely on homeowners, as it was then the custom for a student to eat at a different home each day, and I did not need the yeshiva's funds, nor did I receive grants, even when I studied at the higher yeshiva.
My father was a loyal leader of his community, and I think that thanks to leaders and rabbis like him our nation were able to hold on through its long and bitter exile. Of course, he was also a good husband and a devoted father.
My mother told me that his whole life he would take out the trash at night and then bring back water buckets and chopped wood for heating and cooking to save this trouble from my mother when there was no housekeeper. Indeed, the burden of maintaining the household, including the financial burden rested on her shoulders and she knew [how to] conduct the rabbi's home very well. In addition to her righteousness, her love for the Torah knew no bounds. She was a beautiful woman of valor, knew how to overcome all obstacles, and was of much help to Father including in rabbinate matters, to the point where it was said of her that she is a rebbetzin not just because she is the rabbi's wife but in her own right. From the experience of observing and listening she knew how to determine the halachic verdict on many rules, but was very cautious to not rule or predict how my father would rule. If Father was absent, she would expertly deliver the contents of the question.
My father did not always have enough time to look after and care for his home and children, but he devoted special attention to orphans (perhaps because he himself grew up as an orphan.) When my sister Bruria was in the United States (with her husband Avraham Aloni), Yaakov Cohen, who was orphaned in childhood, told her that our father looked after his wellbeing and his education, and would often show him affection to fill the what he was missing the most, and he remembers it and feels it with every fiber of his being.
Once on Sukkot night, an orphan entered the synagogue wearing a ragged hat. When my father saw that he called the hatter and asked him to make a hat at his expense, which the hatter did.
My adopted brother Rabbi Aharon said while eulogizing our father, that through his entire life our father was careful to not show excessive affection to his biological sons and daughters, fearing his adopted son would be offended. Every time and in every situation he found the time to teach him Torah and the ways of life, though he did not always find the time for his biological children.
When our adopted brother arrived at our home, he was six years old and grew very attached to my father. He also inherited the role of town rabbi after father's death and fulfilled his role with great success because he followed in the footsteps of our father and followed his experience. After becoming well known among other rabbis he was destined for greatness if not for the bitter enemy who murdered him along with six dear souls from his family (in Ponary, Vilne). My efforts and the efforts of Rabbi Tzvik (his brotherinlaw) to bring him to Israel were unsuccessful, but an orchard remains of him in Israel, which he managed to purchase in peacetime, thinking eventually he would succeed in making aliyah with his family since he was a great lover of Zion. Rabbi Kalmen Parvar, now the Ramla district officer, who was with him in Vilne and survived and got to Israel, told me of Aharon's final days. His friend from the Radin Yeshiva, now Netanya Chief Rabbi Moshe Levine, told me with much pain and suffering about Aharon's studiousness in Torah and his expansive education.
My father did not only look out for orphans but for all families in his community. One of his sacred duties was writing letters to America seeking assistance for relatives who had stayed behind in Russia, and there was barely a time when such requests were denied. He styled the letters in a brief and clear manner so as not to burden the receiving party, and would inject much warmth and emotion into his writing. Thanks to the support of relatives, Jews living in the Pale of Settlement were able to make a living and could educate their children, as well as sustain community institutions. My father had close relationships with activists in America who sent significant sums to the town.
Our family too was sustained mainly by the assistance we received from relatives in America, not from the low salary of a town rabbi. My aunt Chaya Henye was devoted to the role and contributed and urged others to contribute to their relative, the wellrespected rabbi beloved by all. My uncle R' Yaakov sent immigration documents many times and implored him to emigrate to America, but out of concern for the children's education, and due to his personality, he was not interested in life in America and rejected the offer. In contrast, throughout his life, he desired to make aliyah and was delighted that thanks to his brother, Hedera mayor Shlomo Meirson, his daughters made aliyah during his lifetime and settled in Hedera (most of the olim from Bilitza followed them thus turning Hedera into a center for Bilitzians in Israel.)
My father was quite irritated by residents of our town who had shared relatives in the United States who saw each other as competitors risking one another's portion from their shared relative. There were incidents when one of them slandered the other with an accusation he did not need assistance since he had a substantial income, sufficient to maintain his household. At about the same time a relative from a neighboring town asked my father to write to a shared relative in America about a crisis and encourage assistance. My father immediately did as requested, writing a letter to the shared relative describing in heartfelt words the condition of the person who had requested help and asking for assistance. A short while later a response arrived thanking father for his efforts on behalf of his fellow man along with a check for both my father and the relative. Father then used that incident as evidence in rebuking those who had acted jealously, and explained to them how the opposite mindset was best: One who solicits mercy for his fellow while he himself needs the same thing will be answered first.
Father invested much effort and energy in caring for his community being tormented by the authorities whose sole purpose was to confiscate Jewish income sources, primarily based on marketday Wednesdays. Villagers would bring their produce for sale and would purchase goods from local workshops. The government demanded the relocation of the market to out of town. The excuse was hygiene, i.e., to cleanup the marketplace from trash and dirt, but the true intention was to sever the income of Jewish merchants since [it would be] Christians opening the stores out of town. Father made every effort, worked, and energized the town's activists, and appeared before the authorities to make his claims that [the policy] was an attempt to deprive Jews' of an income source. Eventually the authorities agreed that the market should stay in place and only the livestock market was moved out of town.
The authorities harassed the bakeries as well when they demanded bread be baked only in electric ovens, when there was no electricity in town. Father traveled to the district governor who expressed his wonder that an educated and wise man would object to such a helpful law which is for the benefit of the population's health maintenance. Father replied, I have been here for decades and have never heard of someone in the area dying because of eating bread. And for this shadow of a concern certain death will be inflicted on dozens of souls. The governor was eventually convinced to postpone the edict until such time when there would be electricity in town and electric ovens could be installed.
On a similar topic, there was [the case of] a Jewish baker at the time of the Soviet invasion of Poland. At the end of WWI, this baker was accused by the Communist military of having baked bread for sale without receiving a permit to do so and was facing execution. Though father knew the Communists did not respect rabbis, he decided to attempt to convince them for the sake of saving a life. They asked him how long he had known the accused and father replied that he had known him to be an honest respectable man, and that this was the first offense, that he did not fully comprehend, and thus should be forgiven this time.
When the transcript was ready the interrogator told my father that everything would be done publicly, which is why they would go outside to announce the decision. A squadron of soldiers stood outside and the interrogator/officer, and Father, faced them. The transcript was read and when the officer finished he faced Father and said, Your words indicated you are friends with the accused and we have the same verdict for the criminal and his friend. Father wanted to reply but a Jewish soldier from the squad put his hand over his mouth and hinted he should remain silent, thus probably saving his life. When father later told of the incident, which confirmed to him that the Communists considered a rabbi to be a criminal, he would add that peace is virtuous even for sinners and I'm probably a rabbi to the Communists as well; they need a rabbi more than do all the town residents.
On a related note, a similar event was mentioned which took place in the era of the Czar. The Jews were hated then too, but religious representatives were respected. Once, the Patriarch vested Bilitza and the population went to greet him, among them Jews led by the rabbi who greeted him with bread and salt as was traditional, and with the Birkat Cohanim, to which the patriarch responded in perfect Hebrew. That made a strong impression on the Christian population and raised esteem [for the Jews] in their eyes.
Father was popular among the Gentiles and had friends among their intellectuals. The Russian Pope was considered a friend. When the Poles occupied the region they banned the Pravoslav Church and inserted Catholic clergy in their place, and exiled the Pope, despite the population being overwhelmingly Pravoslav. The Pope came to my father to pour out his heart, complaining of the injustice done to his tribe, and wept bitterly. Father consoled him as was demanded by courtesy and when he left father said, I am surprised he learned so well how to complain of his bitter fate and weep just like a Jewish rabbi.
Advisees would come to the rabbi's home regarding questions on Kosher laws, as was customary. One Friday, while I passed with father through the market place, a woman approached us holding a chicken and apologized for bothering father on his way, but she wanted to ask a question. You did well, Father replied, why should you go through the trouble of walking all the way to my house on a Friday. As he spoke he entered a nearby home, was handed a knife, and he opened the chicken, checked, and gave his ruling.
Since childhood I loved helping father with building the sukkah, which he would construct on his own (I would go with him to get the covering). The sukkah was large because many [people] visited the rabbi's home during the festival, and on the Feast of WaterDrawing the whole community would come to the sukkah to eat and rejoice after reciting the Song of Ascents from the Psalms.
Every Friday, my father would go inspect the eruv so that town residents would not, unknowingly commit the sin of carrying items from property to property on Shabbat, God forbid. There was a period when the eruv was getting torn every Friday and Father worked to repair it. A police complaint was filed since it was assumed that Gentles were doing it to torment the Jews, but eventually it became clear that policemen had done this themselves, for their own amusement, to irritate Jews.
I do not remember every detail about the relocation or the negotiations surrounding my father's agreement to accept the role in Divenishok, but the days of moving to the new town remain in my memory.
When news [emerged] that father had accepted the rabbinate in a different town, Bilitza was in turmoil. A strategy to prevent his exit was being planned. The salary was doubled and people came and asked him to stay, emphasizing that which was the will of the public, even among those who did not identify with the rabbi's administration of the town.
When the coaches for moving items and furniture arrived from Divenishok, the Bilitza community gathered together to prevent this, even if by force. However, my father explained to them that the parting of ways would be tough on him as well, but because he had accepted the rabbinate contract from the people of Divenishok and they had put much effort into setting up the rabbi's home, he could not renege.
Guarded by the coachmen, items were loaded, and when that was completed they went on their way while we traveled by train. Community members accompanied the rabbi, and on the way, the crowd detoured to the synagogue where the rabbi departed with a heartfelt speech quoting the Prophet Samuel [at his farewell address] after the ordination of King Saul, Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken? etc. (1 Samuel 12:3), and added Rashi's commentary, for their needs I used my own donkey (and did not take theirs). As usual, the words fit the situation, since everyone knew that he had served his community with total devotion and for a minimal salary.
The community, men, women, and children, walked the rabbi and our family out of town, where the procession stopped and R' Eliahu Sokolvski made a speech and remarked, The rabbi was the gold chain holding all of us and linked us to one another, and now as he leaves us we will all maintain that unity and walk the path given to us by God. Everyone parted ways in tears and wished [us] luck at the new place.
In all the tumult we forgot Itshe the synagogue custodian who was very close to the rabbi and our family, and now as we got closer [to the train station] we felt his absence from the crowd and Father was quite worried something had happened to him. We reached the Neiman train station and were about to board the train. As we stood there, very concerned, R' Itshe suddenly appeared, weeping and crying like an infant and unable to speak, not even a shalom. He tried boarding the train car with us, but we convinced him to return home with the coachmen who brought us.
We traveled three hours before reaching Benakani, where town notables from Divenishok waited for us. We entered a welllighted house arranged for us near the station; wine and refreshments were served. We sat around a table in an atmosphere of friendship and good conversation. I remember Shmuel Herszon the tailor and gabbai at the synagogue, who was also a cantor, pleased listeners with his beautiful voice. ZusheYankel the tarworkshop (the smalyarne) owner, Arye Leyb Rogol the pharmacist, and many more [were there]. Father had a conversation with Arye Leyb about his house that was being reconstructed after the fire and was happy to hear that it was built up to the roof and would be completed soon at that construction pace.
The next morning our journey continued and we made our way from Benakani to Divenishok (≈30 km) on a horsepulled carriage. The road passed through pine forests and Gentile villages; a small town of only 20 Jewish families named Kalelishok was on the road. They told us they previously had a rabbi but after his death the town joined the Divenishok community.
We met Jews there who had walked from Divenishok to greet the rabbi. Among them I remember R' Pesach the synagogue custodian, a Jew with a quick sense of humor. He told us the entire community awaited us a few kilometers from Divenishok where an honorgate was built for the arrival. Father was deeply moved and said, Jews who live in a sea of Gentile villagers ignore their everyday activities and cancel a work day to pay their respect to a representative of the Torah they live by, and appoint him rabbi according to their wishes. Is that not independence and freedom within subjection?
We reached the meeting spot, where the whole town, old and young, women and children, all stood together. I remember my sister Bruria, then a student at the Epstein Gymnasium in Vilne, stood in the coach and made a speech in Hebrew. The procession continued from there straight to the synagogue which was illuminated by daylight which added festiveness. Father ascended the stage near the ark wrapped in a tallit and gave his speech to the townsfolk who packed the synagogue to capacity. I do not remember the content, but the joyful faces of the listeners nodding their heads in agreement appear before me. When my father descended the stage the crowd surrounded him to shake his hand. My father served that community for nearly a decade to his last day.
I remember once as I stood and privately recited the morning prayer in a corner at the synagogue, I heard my father's voice choking back tears. I approached to check what had happened and found him sitting and speaking to his flock about the Mishna in Bikkurim, describing how our forefathers had magnificently brought the sacrificial First Fruit even King Aggripa mounted the basket on his shoulder and entered [Bikkurim 3:4]. Father was overtaken by longing and excitement and cried, and his students, the working men, cried with him. To this day [I still can see] that image of grown men busy with their daily lives crying in longing for the glory days in Eretz Israel.
Father always emphasized his satisfaction with the honor that some of his descendants were in Israel, and would add, People say that the wishes a man does not fulfil in his lifetime are fulfilled through his children. I was not fortunate to make aliyah, but was honored by my children doing so. While still in his prime he planned to visit his beloved brother Shlomo in Israel. He said, After I return from my visit we will make aliyah as a family. He received a tourist visa and was fully prepared for his journey, but meanwhile, did not feel well and decided to visit Dr. Shabad in Vilne to examine his health. At that visit the doctor discovered terminal cancer.
My brother Aharon and my sister Bruria traveled with our father to Vienna, Austria where the greatest medical experts operated, followed by my sister Sarah and my uncle Shlomo who all did whatever possible to save his life. He was brought into the operating room and even administered anesthesia, but the doctors did not operate after closely examining the type of illness and the patient's state. He did not know he had not been operated on and said later that the operation had been very easy, but that he was not feeling relieved and healed.
Father returned from Vienna to his home in Divenishok shortly before Passover of 5693 . On Seder night he left his bed, barely ate a small portion of matzah brei and said he could not taste the flavor. Despite the worsening pain, he did not give up hope that he would be healed, and frequently repeated: How nice and beautiful the world is.
He faded away with each passing day until on Sivan 23, 5693 [17/06/1933], a Friday afternoon, he returned his pure soul to his Creator.
From the booklet Father's Home by Avraham Abir (Rudnik.)
Translated by Meir Bulman
Like all Jewish communities in the Diaspora, spiritual leadership in our town was in the hands of the rabbi: halachic trials, representation before the authorities, administering the town's institutions, etc. He was responsible for all those matters since they demanded wisdom, flexibility, a strong personality, and the power to persuade and influence. With wisdom, he cared for the poor and always stood by the side of the weak, the working man, the poor.
The rabbi had a majestic appearance. He was tall, his face expressing kindness. Rabbi Yosef Rudnik was smart and worldlywise.
He was attached to Eretz Israel with every fiber of his being, and in his fiery lectures he managed to bring many closer to Judaism, especially among the youth. Despite not being a selfdeclared Zionist, he was devoted to the Zionist ideal his whole life. He initiated the establishment of the Tarbut Hebrew School in our town, from which the youth learned the Hebrew language and a love of Eretz Israel.
It should be noted that hiring a teacher at the school was conditioned on their agreement to counsel members of HaShomer HaTzair, to which the teachers Aloni and Dubkin would testify. I, who was among those often present in the rabbi's home, regularly received counseling on how to conduct matters at HaShomer HaTzair.
I remember that when Moshe Lubetski, Yakov Schneider, and Meir Yosef Itskovitsh established the Beitar chapter in town and it was decided to kick us out of the school building. The rabbi rose against that decision, and indeed the decision was overturned.
The rabbi's death shocked us. My brother Tuvye and I sat all night with the deceased and read Psalms. The funeral took place the next day and he was eulogized by many rabbis from the region.
May his pure should be bound in the bond of everlasting life with all the sacred souls of Israel and their memory shall last forever.
Translated by Meir Bulman
Our family, Movshovitsh, is a family of distinguished lineage, which generated Torah Scholars and rabbis over many generations. Though it is difficult for me to reconstruct the family lineage due to lack of documentation in the family tree, I do know that my greatgrandfather Rabbi Asher Shabbtai Rabinovitsh served as rabbi in Divenishok for approximately 30 years, from 18501880. After his death, his son Yosef Yehuda, (who had served previously as Dayan [Tr. Rabbinic judge] in Oshmene) was appointed town rabbi. He served in that role for 24 years, until 1904.
Rabbi Yosef Yehuda was a man of great wisdom and Torah knowledge, and was widely known. He was invited often to Beth Din [Ed. Note: rabbinical court) trials out of town. I have in my possession a few letters from Volozhin's Rabbi Rafael Shapira, that began with the words To the honored, brilliant, rabbi, Likhvod Harav HaGaon Khakima DeYehudae [Tr. Note: wise among the Jews].
After the death of my grandfather, his soninlaw HaRav Yisrael Movshovitsh was appointed as town rabbi. He was immersed in Torah and well versed in the Poskim [Ed. note: Jewish jurisprudence]. In his youth he studied in the Maltz Yeshiva in Lithuania, but he was particularly praised at the Slabodke (Lite) Yeshiva, where my father excelled as an Illui [Tr. Note: prodigy], and where many Talmidei Hakhamim [Ed. Note: wise Torah scholars) originated.
My father was ordained as rabbi by HaRav HaGaon [Ed. Note: title given to a Rabbi of exceptionally proud merit] Zalmen Sender, father of the wellknown Rabbi Shapira, ABD [Tr. Note: Av Beth Din Chief of Rabbinical Court; leading community rabbi of the community] of Kovne. My father administrated all spiritual and public life in town, and was particularly punctilious in lecturing on the daily Talmud Daf [Ed. Note: daily page from the Bablonian Talmud] to the community elders, who excelled in their deep knowledge of Talmud and the Poskim.
His public activity was not limited to the confines of the town, but encompassed much broader horizons. My father participated in public activities around the entire Vilne district, a district that was rightfully considered to be the spiritual and cultural center of the entire region dubbed Cressy (the north east district of Poland, bordering Lithuania and Russia). My father's tenure as a rabbi in Divenishok was accompanied by vicissitudes, turmoil, and change in the life of Russian Jewry. He began his tenure under a Czarist regime, a year before the Kishniev Pogrom. The progress and advancements of the enlightened world began penetrating Russia, and our town, though remote in the Lithuanian woods, began to awaken from its stillness. My father was the first to understand the importance of postal service. In 1907 he established a post office in town, and residents began to receive letters twice weekly. In 1908, my father established the Jewish bank, partly selffunded and partly funded by a loan from ICA [Ed. Note: Iddish Colonization Association] (a philanthropic company founded in 1891 by Baron Maurice de Hirsch, aimed at assisting Russian Jewry). The bank functioned as an important financial support system for Jewish town residents.
At that time, a big fire spread in Divenishok. The fire spread very rapidly through the market place, progressed south towards Subotnik and Geranion Streets, and to the north towards Vilne Street. The two synagogues were in grave danger. Chaim Alferovitsh (Arye Leyb Rogol's soninlaw), who was a great Torah Scholar and feared the fate of the synagogues, watched the flames as they sped towards Vilne Street, and said, Do not despair, Jewish brothers! God will have mercy! It is not possible that the synagogues will burn. A miracle will happen and the fire will stop. And indeed, that miracle did occur; the fire stopped in front of the synagogues. The town residents saw this as the hand of God at work. After the fire, the bank served as a liferaft for town residents. The bank funded Jewish families in rebuilding their stores, as well as the brick homes in the market place.
My father initiated building a new bathhouse and Mikveh [Ed. Note: Jewish ritual bath]. Until then, the Mikveh had been a simple cistern.
Our town received substantial help from ICA, thanks to my father's close friendship with Efroykin, a senior ICA leader in Poland, who was his schoolmate in the Slobodke Yeshiva.
During the years of WWI, a famine struck the country, and my father labored without rest. He frequented aid institutions operating in Vilne, leading to substantial assistance in food and clothes to town residents. A soup kitchen was established for the town's poor.
After the war ended, aid from America intensified and increased. The Yaakofu organization was established then, and provided much assistance to Polish Jewry. Yaakofu had various and diverse functions, among them: aid to schools, clothing and food distribution for orphans and widows, and financial aid to children, the sick, and the disabled.
The regional center of Yaakofu was in Vilne, and my father was a member of the regional oversight committee. Thus, his requests for increased aid to our town were always answered with generosity.
My father was often invited to serve as mediator, or to complex Beth Din trials, and much of his time was spent out of town. Residents were occasionally angered by his absence, but at the bottom line they were proud that their rabbi was so respected and admired in the region and accepted his absence.
After serving for 20 years, he accepted an offer from the Jewish community in Trenton, capital of New Jersey, US, and in 1924 he left Divenishok and traveled to serve there as rabbi. In Trenton he was greeted with great admiration. Trenton has a large Jewish community, among them 60 families of former Divenishok residents. Shlomo Sholomovitz, Avraham Noakh's brother, served as Kosherslaughterer in Trenton after leaving Divenishok, and then transferred the job to his brother Avraham Noakh. Issac Horovitz was Hebrew teacher there. My father remained active in public and cultural activities in Trenton too, and to this day the town residents praise his public services, the crown jewel of which is the Gemilut Hesed [Ed. Note: giver of interestfree loans] institution, still active to this day.
In 1929 he was appointed as rabbi in the Zera Ya'akkov Synagogue, and later served as rabbi in the Ahavat Akhim Synagogue. He eventually served as rabbi at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol on Forrest Avenue, Bronx, New York, where he lectured on Talmud to large audiences, and amazed all with his Talmudic knowledge and depth. There too, he did not cease his public service. He oversaw Kashrut [Ed. Note: Jewish Dietatry Laws], and was active in Relief for Divenishok. He passed away in 1940.
After my father's passing, I was appointed as rabbi in the Nezakh Yisrael Synagogue in the Bronx, and served in that role until my retirement.
In the days of my youth, I studied in the Hebrew school, like all town children. After that, I attended grade school, where I studied Torah, arithmetic, Yiddish.and Hebrew. I remember that during the war years, the wellknown Yiddish writer Glomb, and educator and writer Bastomski served as teachers in Divenishok. After that, I studied in Kloyz Ramyless in Vilne, and from there I transferred to a public gymnasium. After receiving my diploma, I traveled to Basel to study medicine. I studied medicine for two years, and then suddenly the Polish council demanded I return at once to Poland and present myself for military duty. I preferred to travel to the United States, and there I was accepted as a student to the Schechter Seminary. Concurrently, I studied chemistry at Columbia University. After four years of intensive study, I completed the seminary and was ordained as a rabbi, and also completed a master's degree. Until 1957 I worked in research, and since then I have been serving as a rabbi.
My eldest brother Nakhum completed his studies at the Sofia Gorvits Gymnasium in Vilne, where the language of instruction is Yiddish. After that, he traveled to Grenoble, France, where he completed an electrical engineering degree. He arrived in the United States in 1934, where he worked in his trade. He passed away in 1934 [Ed. Note: 1934 is given as both Nakhum's year of arrival and of death]. My sister Reyzl passed away in 1967 in New York. My sister Blume lives in New York.
Translated by Meir Bulman
My family members on my father's side to my knowledge lived in Divenishok over many generations.
My mother's family moved to town from neighboring Voronova after she married my father.
My paternal grandfather, Shepsl (Shabtai) was a dynamic man, industrious and active, with a firm body, bright, level headed, and was a sharpminded merchant. He was a proud Jew, brave and selfconfident. His gentile customers treated him with great honor and appreciation, and their confidence in him was absolute.
In his youth my grandfather labored intensively and worked at many trades. He particularly excelled in the building trade and built the home where we resided with his own two hands.
As was common in those days, my grandfather was married off right after his Bar Mitzvah. The first time he saw his bride was under the Chuppah. That had deeply wounded him, and when he reached independence he got divorced, without having had children by her.
From his second marriage he had an only daughter, who is Aunt Sarah Leah (Zeydke Lubetski's mother). My grandfather loved his grandson Zeydke very much, because of his athletic body type, his bravery and strength, perhaps he saw in him a mirror image of his younger self.
My father was his only son from his third marriage, and that's why his name was Ben Zion.
My grandmother Khaye Sorah was a righteous, merciful, and energetic woman. She oversaw the household until the day she died, leaving the store's operation to my mother. She accepted her destiny and took care of her blind sister Gitah Leah with love and devotion, until she passed away.
From the fruit of his labor my grandfather accumulated much wealth, and was a respected and admired member of the community. He passed before Passover of 1930 of old age and was brought to rest at the cemetery on Geranion Street. I remember that on his tombstone, prepared by Yaakov Olkanitski, were etched among others the words by hard work he ate his bread
My father, Ben Zion Schneider, continued to oversee the house and businesses he inherited from my grandfather, along with my mother Hinde Sarah, and they established a family worthy of pride. They had five children: the eldest Yaakov, myself, and my three sisters Libke (Ahuva), Rozhke (Shoshana), and Leah היד.
In addition to a big store (relatively big in terms of a small Eastern European town), my father owned lands in town and outside of town. Most of the fields were leased to gentiles, in exchange for part of the crops. On the rest of the land we labored ourselves and grew vegetables, potatoes, and fruits for our own consumption.
Though my father was busy with his family and businesses, he passionately devoted himself to involvement in public matters. That led to disagreements with my mother, who argued he was neglecting his livelihood for public involvement. My father was a Nationalistic Jew, an enthusiastic Zionist, and an observer of Jewish tradition; he saw his public involvement his life destiny. He argued that a man's unique value is not measured by how many years he lives, but rather by his actions and his service to the public. That idea guided him his entire life. Cruel fate wanted that his life to be short, but that life was accompanied by good deeds and intentions for the benefit of individuals and the community.
Naturally, in a small town a public servant must take care of many public issues, willingly or unwillingly. Our home was open to all and was a destination for every person in need, and to all those in pain, where they found aid and comfort. His heart was always open to assist and encourage.
I am unable to describe all my father's public activities. I will attempt to raise memories from the corners of the past, to demonstrate and shed light on his positive activities.
My father would claim that our existence in the Diaspora is conditioned upon Hebrew education. That is why he energetically fought for the establishment of a Hebrew school, and was fortunate to be among its founders. Each year he was a member of the school board and one of its main activists. He cared for the teachers' salaries and the school's maintenance. Despite financial difficulties, there was no incident where a poor child in town could not attend the school due to inability to pay tuition. My father guarded the school as the apple of his eye, because he knew that in this institution his children must be educated for love of the people and the homeland.
My father was among the initiators and founders of the Hebrew library. Because there was concern that the establishment of that library would damage the Yiddish VILBIG library, lovers of the Yiddish language were angered and began bothering him. He was even physically assaulted by them, but that did not deter him and the Hebrew library became an established fact.
My father was among the administrators of the new Bet Midrash. During his time, the synagogue was put in order and the furniture was renewed. For that purpose, a painter was specially brought from Olshan, and he enriched the synagogue with breathtaking oil paintings on topics from the Bible and Eretz Israel. To this day the wonderful painting In the Last Days on the western synagogue wall remains in my heart.
Considered among the most important roles in town was Chevra Kadisha [Ed. Note: Jewish Burial Society] treasurer, because eventually every resident would need a chesed shel emet [Tr. Note: literally the truest act of kindness; refers to the preparation of the deceased for burial]. My father successfully served as treasurer for many years, though that role included great responsibility and annoyance. The treasurer had to haggle regarding burial fees with the stingy rich men as their dead lay before them. On the other hand, the company took care of funeral expenses for those in poverty who could not afford it.
The annual Chevra Kadisha dinner took place in our home. That Mitzvah was mother's, and grandmother's, pleasure.
My father was very active member on the Gemach [Ed. Note: interestfree loan banking] committee. Every Saturday night, with other committee members, he would distribute loans to the needy. Every request was individually considered. That role too was accompanied by annoyance, because every rejection was met with anger, and at times with swearing and cursing.
My father was also a member of the administration of The Jewish Bank the first and largest financial institution in town. The bank operated as a mutual organization and dispensed loans for business purposes, with interest rates the same as other banks.
In severe instances, when the aforementioned institutions could not provide assistance such as a coachman's horse failing, which meant a family without a livelihood, or a bankrupt merchant, the problem was solved by a fundraiser. My father, along with his friends, would conduct a rapid fundraiser that was sufficient, say, to buy Chaim Gershovitz a new horse, or to get that needy merchant back on his feet.
My father was also on the board of trustees overseeing the Relief funds from the United States, an organization established by former community residents now in New York, for purposes of aid, education, and culture in Divenishok.
My father's public actions were accompanied by deep awareness of Zionism, likely acquired at the Volozhin Yeshiva. His opinions were like those of Herzel and Jabotinsky, and he did his best to instill these values in his children. His education bore fruit, and my eldest brother Yaakov reached the rank of commander in the Betar chapter of Divenishok.
My father was attached to Eretz Israel with every fiber of his being, and did his best to revive the Hebrew language and to encourage and strengthen the Zionist movements, by providing aid to the pioneers making Aliyah. I remember, in 1929, when the events began in Eretz Israel [Ed. Note: refers to the Hebron Massacre of 1929 and its aftermath], our home was filled with grief and mourning at the saddening articles in the newspapers and the obituaries in Yiddish newspaper Der Moment, of which we were frequent readers.
My father participated regularly in Chumash and Mishnah courses led by HaRav Yosef Rudnik, sage of blessed memory, and later led by HaRav Aharon Tayts זצל, to deepen his knowledge of the values and legacy of Judaism. He also forced his sons to study Mishnah and Talmud with a special tutor.
He encouraged us to be members of Betar and to participate in all the movement's activities. Although he needed our assistance on market days, he did not deter us from going out to Betar summer and training camps.
My father was a proud Jew and was diligent in his observance of Jewish tradition and his esteem even towards the Christians. I remember once on Friday night, while we were making Kiddush, the infamous police officer Voytoss appeared in our home and asked for a glass board for window installation. It was Hanukkah and a storm raged outside. No matter, said the officer, Kehat the glazier will do this for me, even on Shabbat. This is where my father's national pride was ignited, and he approached Voytoss, listen, my friend, Kehat is a Jew like me and I will not allow him to violate the Sabbath! The glass was not given, and Voytoss left empty handed.
Rescue of Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin
Even during the Soviet occupation blessed public activities did not cease in our home. My father was undeterred by the dangers and assisted refugees from the wars and massacres.
In 1939, when Poland was divided between the Soviets and the Germans, Vilne and its surroundings were handed to Lithuania. Our town remained under Soviet control, 15 kilometers from the Lithuanian border. Being a border town, many Jewish refugees from all over Poland who wanted to cross the border to Lithuania, the only window to the free world, arrived in town.
Among the refugees, HaRav Zalman Sorotzkin arrived in our town with his family. He fell prey to border crossing guides in Lida, who had charged him a hefty sum. They took the family to a forest near Divenishok and abandoned them there. Rabbi Sorotzkin and his entourage arrived at the town's synagogue, exhausted and fearful. My grandfather, who was acquainted with the rabbi since the days he served as Beth Din chairman in Voronova, invited the whole entourage to our home, with permission from my father, despite the danger of the NKVD.
They stayed in my parents' home for several weeks, until my father got hold of a trustworthy gentile who guided them across the border to Vilne, to a hotel on Chopin Street. From there, Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin and his entourage succeeded in reaching Eretz Israel. Here, he served as chairman of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah [Ed. Note: Rabbinical Council of Haredi Judaism, characterized by the rejection of modern secularism] until the day he died.
In one of his books, Oznaim LaTorah (a commentary on the Torah), he wrote a dedication to my father in these words: to the kadosh R' Ben Zion Schneider היד, for the great Khesed he performed in hiding me in his home during the Red Army's occupation of Poland, and his assistance in crossing the border to Lithuania.
Even during the terrible days of the Holocaust under German control, our home was open to refugees. One of them, Trigovov, managed to save himself and make Aliyah, and would go on to be on the Israeli Foreign Ministry staff.
My mother Sarah Hinde, of blessed memory
My mother was a woman with valor and very energetic. She had a natural tendency for quickwitted business management and managed the business with great wisdom. She would travel to Vilne to purchase merchandise, and at home conducted the management of the home and business. She had a unique, charming personality that would attract customers to her, Jews and Gentiles alike.
My mother was gifted with life wisdom. She managed to locate the golden mean between herself and my father, who was mostly devoted to public outreach. My mother had her own personality. Her outlook on life was not the same as my father's. She leaned towards socialist views, not rooted in Humanism, but rather in philosophical and mental perceptions. Still, my father and she did not argue over the subject.
My mother was a noble soul and bound to her family with a strong, loving bond. She was admired by her parents, who moved to our town following her marriage to my father.
My grandfather Moshe Ber
My grandfather, Moshe Ber [Ed. Note: Satkolshtsik], was a common man, but was devoted to Jewish values and tradition. He devoted every free minute to prayer and Psalms recitation in the synagogue. On the High Holidays he would be enveloped by holiness, standing all day in the synagogue, communing with his creator. On more than one occasion, I observed him shedding tears for the Galut [Ed. Note: exile] of the Nation of Israel and the Shekhina [Ed. Note: divine presence]. My grandfather objected to the trend of Minyanim [Ed. note: Jewish prayer quorum] gathering in private homes in place of the synagogue. We must maintain the holiness of the synagogue, he argued.
His wife, Leah my grandmother was a righteous and kind woman, who was sickly and well cared for by the devoted family.
In addition to his only son Yudel, who was an avid Zionist, he had a daughter who married Yaakov Yankelovitsh, and a daughter who was single, Tania. They all perished in the Lida ghetto.
My grandfather's eldest brother emigrated to the Pittsburg area in the United States, the center of steel production. He managed a restaurant and was successful with his business. He brought the family along, who all settled into the restaurant business. Only my grandfather refused to join him, because it came to his knowledge the restaurants served pork dishes.
My grandfather's family was murdered in Lida. Yudel likely found his death in Volozhin, where he had married. My grandfather's two daughters, Nekhama (of blessed memory) and Bilkha, managed to leave town, and established wonderful families in Pittsburgh, USA.
Translated by Meir Bulman
BenZion Schneider was one of the most exceptional and important activists in town. He excelled not only in his benevolent activity on the Parent Conference, but in all of the town's institutions, such as the bank, the Gemach [Ed. Note: interestfree loan giving bank], the synagogue and the library, as well as providing aid and good advice.
Rabbi Yosef Rudnik, who chaired the town institutions, never made a move before consulting Ben Zion Schneider, because he knew that he was a straightforward thinking person with sound logic. He always addressed the core of the issues, without favoritism, because in his nature he was honest and guided by wisdom.
His face was always adorned with a smile, though it portrayed seriousness and intelligence. He was well mannered and his speech flowed pleasantly. I never saw him mad or angry, since he was a man of peace, striving to understand, and every person found in him an attentive listener and a shoulder to cry on, as the town did not lack troubled individuals. He always found words of encouragement, hope, and comfort, and his patience and understanding made him beloved to all town residents, and all saw in him a loyal friend.
His three children studied in the school that I managed.
The eldest, Yankele, was a gaunt child, pleasant and gentlenatured, whose father cared for him with great devotion and when the teachers informed him of his son's progress, he radiated with happiness.
The second one, Shmuel, was a chubby boy, always cheerful and happy, with an analytical and logical mind. He inherited his traits from his father, and already at that time stood out for his straightforward mind and his good qualities, and he excelled in level headed thinking and expressive talent. In the 40's Shmuel made Aliyah and was absorbed well into the country, but due to his underground activities he was exiled to Eritrea, where he spent some years. When he returned to Israel, he again joined a productive circle, established a proud home, and today fills important roles in Israel's market.
His sister, Libke, was a beautiful girl, with a noble soul, and a diligent student.
BenTsion had two more girls, Rosa, and Leah. As I heard it, Yankele became hardworking and pleasant, and reached the rank of commander in Betar in town. During the Holocaust, he was injured by Polish militia forces on his way to the Partisans, returned injured to Lida, where the Germans executed him.
BenTsion, his wife, and three daughters escaped from the Lida Ghetto, and hid with a gentile in the Divenishok area. He took advantage of them, and extorted all their belongings, and when their funds ran out, informed on them to the Polish militia, who murdered them in their hiding place.
That is how a firmly established Jewish family was extinguished with much cruelty, and only one remnant is in Israel, their son Shmuel, who carries the memory of his beloved family in his bereaved heart.
Translated by Meir Bulman
Yudel came from Voronova to Divenishok with his parents, after his sister Hinde Sarah married Ben Zion Schneider. He quickly became involved in the town's public life, and was among the chief Zionist activists in town. He was a member on the Keren Kayemet [Ed. Note: Jewish National Fund] board, secretary of HaKhalutz [Ed. note: Zionist youth movement] and of the main initiators to encourage Aliyah. He fearlessly combated the Yiddishists who made efforts to recruit people to their camp.
Yudel was an excellent public speaker, and his speeches were very logically organized, based on ideas of Jewish tradition and the concept of national revival. He attracted the youth to his lectures and had a great amount of influence on them. Yudel was also considered a friend to the school and would take part in all field trips.
The Rav brought him closer to the town's public activities, and he fulfilled all his roles with top quality dedication and understanding. He was affable and had an open, ontheball approach to all subjects, and all his friends and acquaintances were in good spirits when near him. Yudel was considered one of the most devoted and vigorous activists in the culturalZionistsocial scene in town.
For his whole life Yudel planned to fulfill the Zionist vision by making Aliyah, but being occupied with providing for his family, he postponed it from one year to the next. Yudel was an agricultural merchant with Rueven Kartshmer, and was quite successful in his business, until he moved to Volozhin where he married, and continued his Zionist activities. On holidays and festivals when he visited his parents, he did not miss an opportunity to speak to the youth. Listening to Yudel lecture on any topic was a moving and unique experience. His words progressed with ease and reason.
Yudel and his entire family were murdered by the Germans in Volozhin.
(photos of the Schneider and Satkolshtsik families on pages 358360)
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