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Before the destruction

 

[Columns 271-272]

The Town and Its People

Ch. A. Michaeli

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Donated by Natalie Lichtenstein

At the edge of the Polesia Strip, nestled between the ponds and the quicksand bogs to the north, the Smierc River and thick forests to the east, and the turbulent Pripyat River to the south – lies our native town of Lakhva in the center.

Its entire wealth was hidden in the assets of the forests and the depths of the ponds and rivers that cut across its length and width. The raising of flocks of cattle and sheep, fishing, cutting trees, and hunting were the regular occupations of the population for generations.

These four branches of economy were solely based on export to the districts of the far-off districts of the country that were not blessed with such fundamental products.

The primitive manufacturing methodologies on the one hand and the distance from central cities and tortuous communication routes on the other hand, acted throughout the years as an impediment to the development of the district and a stumbling block for the improvement of the life conditions of the population.

The vast majority of the population were Byelorussians of the Pravoslavc faith. The Jews were the largest minority. There was a noticeable minority of Catholic Poles, the remnants of the Szlachta (nobility) in the villages and suburbs.

Whereas the Poles assimilated completely from a linguistic perspective, the Jews in all places, including the individual Jews who lived in remote villages, formed a racial segment with a well-formed national characteristic, united in their feelings of brotherhood and common fate at all times and under all circumstances.

The beginnings of the settlement of Lakhva are unclear. According to legends that were formed throughout the generations and passed on from fathers to sons, it was founded in the 13th or 14th century.

Lakhva was one of the small villages, a remote corner in which a number of families decided to settle in after extensive, wearying wandering. Apparently, they were enchanted by the wealth of opportunities and ancient splendor that was preserved there until our time.

The elders of the generation could tell about the numerous unusual disasters that afflicted the impoverished settlement of Lakhva. There were natural disasters such as floods, fires, and epidemics that claimed many victims; or acts of destruction and ruin caused by the wars among various tribes and the borders of nations.

In all events of disaster, the settlement was destroyed to its foundations, and those who survived the storm rebuilt it, and continued to build and expand it. A legend related to one of the periods of stormy destruction is also the source of the name of the town, Lakhva.

During one of the invasions by Tatar tribes, a cavalry brigade passed through and stumbled in the quicksand of the area, drawing their advance to a halt. In the midst of the battle, most of the brigade succeeded in extricating themselves from the quicksand and breaking through to Lakhva. However, under the Russian attack, they were forced to retreat to the other side of the Smierc River. This took place during the season of melting snow, when the waters of the river overflowed their banks. The horses and riders did not have enough energy to cross the river, and they were swept away in the stormy current. In their surprise, the drowning cavalrymen shouted out “Alla”. The Russians stationed on the shore heard the echo “Allakh” and called the unnamed settlement Lakhva after their victory…

Some people also find a hint to the name of the River Smierc, which surrounded the town from the northeast side. The meaning of “Smierc” in Russian is “death.” The elders of the generation regarded this as an allusion to the mass drowning of the invading brigade.

In village circles, the opinion existed that the name of the river was Smierc because a few people of the area drowned in its waters annually. Indeed, no year passed when the river did not snuff out the life of a few people.

The beginning of the Jewish connection to Lakhva is also

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shrouded in mystery. The first information of Jewish Lakhva in the old times is from the years 1764-1766, when it joined the neighboring cities of Yanovo, Motili, Drohoczyn, Stolin, and others that rebelled against the primary community of Pinsk and separated themselves regarding the conducting of communal affairs.[1]

From here we learn that these towns, Lakhva among them, had communities that were consolidated and organized appropriately, they did not recoil from thrusting off the yoke of oversight from the community of Pinsk, and that they had appropriate, skilled people to preserve their independence. From here, we can further derive that the Jewish community of Lakhva was already in existence for many years prior to its separation from the regional city.

Our assumption is strengthened by the fact that the old cemetery of Lakhva contains ancient monuments, whose inscriptions are obscured by age and covered with moss. The members of the Chevra Kadisha [Burial Society] were very careful with their respect. They had a tradition that these monuments were hundreds of years old.

In the ledgers of the Chevra Kadisha, the entries of which covered a period of more than 200 years, it is noted that when they dug a grave in the new area, they stumbled on human bones that had found their rest there. This testifies to the ancientness of the Jewish settlement in Lakhva.

During the old times, the disasters did not pass over the Jewish settlement. These were caused by clashes with heard-hearted foreign invaders on one side, and from the gentile neighbors who took hold of libels spread by fierce religious zealots on the other side.

The repeated destruction of the Jewish settlement did not weaken the hands of the small community. The community members united further after each disaster, and rebuilt their destroyed houses with their energy and diligence. The way of life was firmly religious, and centered around the few institutions: the synagogue, the Chevra Kadisha, and the Talmud Torah. The majority of the Jewish community lived from the labor of their hands. Only a small number earned their livelihood from small-scale commerce.

The way of life was frozen for many generations, with no change. Only during the 19th century do we find the first sparks of change in the horizon of the city.

The strengthening of Russia, the growth of urban centers, and the development of manufacturing caused upheaval in the traditional way of life in all areas of the country. Their effect even penetrated the most remote corners.

The “traveling dealers” who were occupied with selling the merchandise of the provincial factories, would wander from one settlement to the next, and reach even the most remote places. Aside from forging business connections, they would also bear news on scientific innovations, culture, and technology gathered from the large cities, and news of which had not yet reached the far-off districts.

The traditional merchants quickly stood up to the social change that was taking place, and modified their methodologies to the requirements of the new times. One of the business sectors in the district, which was in great demand abroad, was the lumber trade (which was wholly in Jewish hands).

The small town and the nearby area, surrounded by thick forests on all sides, became one of the important centers of commerce. Businessmen and experts in the lumber trade, most of them with secular knowledge and European politeness, aroused with their appearance a new spirit among the residents of the town, especially the youth. A decisive change began in the economic situation of the town. Many Jews abandoned their meager livelihoods and were accepted as assistants to the professional foremen who had come in from outside. Their job was to supervise the processing and export of lumber.

The livelihoods of the farmers of the town and the region also expanded. Hundreds of them were employed in work in the forests, and many of them became experts at floating barges on the rivers. This means of transport was the cheapest and most effective in that era prior to the railroad reaching the town. The construction of a railway line to Lakhva began only in 1881, and was completed in 1885. However, even then, the floating of lumber on barges to the places in Russia connected by waterways did not cease.

A strong connection with the broad Jewish world was forged through the influence of the businessmen and experts from outside who visited Lakhva. The railway station was an important crossroads that also helped strengthen and deepen the connections.

Several of the residents tried their hand at the lumber trade, were successful, and became well-off. These included Pinchas Kaplan, Moshe Leb and Meir Moravkin.

Indeed, it was hard for the town to come to terms with “strange, far-off” concepts, despite the great charm hidden within them. Slowly, slowly, the thinking drew near, and the hearts were able to make peace with the waves of innovation. People began to understand that they [i.e. the new concepts] had only come

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to broaden the knowledge of people in all areas of thought and action.

As was their way, the youth were first to respond to the call for a revolution of the spirit. They regarded it as a means of opening a window to the unknown larger world, which was drawn in their imagination as the pinnacle of achievement. Lakhva had become impoverished in its spiritual attraction. The education of the Talmud Torah no longer satisfied the thirst for knowledge and education that pulsated within the hearts of the youth. Anyone who was able would join the school bench in the gymnasias of the large cities of Kiev, Homel and Mozyr. Some reached as far as the University of Berlin.

The Talmud Torah and the cheder were not differentiated by social class. All the children of the town, both rich and poor, received their primary education there. The teachers [melamdim] were natives of the town. Some also came from outside.

The educational style was based on a religious foundation. The majority of the school hours were devoted to holy subjects. At the end of the 19th century, a Yeshiva was founded in Lakhva, at which 35 lads studied. The students were from the town, as well as from the area. Those from outside partook their meals on a rotation basis, as was the custom in those days.

The Jewish population of Lakhva was only 150 families. Jewish Lakhva did not deviate from the education of the younger generation in accordance with the conditions and concepts of that time. Its entire honor was internal: imbuing the tradition of the ancestors and deepening the religious foundations – the treasuries of strength that guarded the spirit of Judaism during the times of tribulations and evil decrees, and united the people in protecting their national consciousness from the gentile world, which was still infused with ignorance.

The Yeshiva complemented the studies of the cheder and the Talmud Torah. The synagogues also served as places for the continuation of Torah studies, both for individuals and for the congregations. People would gather between Mincha and Maariv [the afternoon and evening services] for a class in Talmud or Mishna. There were many scholars who always found free time to get together to study a page of Gemara, despite the difficulties in earning a livelihood.

Blind zealotry did not pervade in the town, as it did in other places. There were no battles against anti-religious expressions in communal life.

The small community had one prolonged internal battle – the battle with the Hassidim, instigated by their Rebbe, Rabbi Ahrele of Karlin, the founder of the Karlin-Stolin Hassidic dynasty, who “objected to the penetration and organization in the fortresses of Misnagdut [Hassidic opposition] – Lithuania and White Russia – where the Gr'a himself stood at the helm of the battle against them.” However, in this matter as well, there was no extreme zealotry, and a compromise was finally worked out, with peace between the disputing sides. The echoes of the stubborn battle were slowly forgotten from the hearts.

The Hassidim of Lakhva who were affiliated with the Hassidim of the Rebbe of Stolin (aside from Yehuda Slutski “the lone one in the battlefield” who was a Hassid of the Rebbe of Karlin) formed 20-25% of the Jewish population. The rest were numbered among the Misnagdim in the Beis Midrash of the Gr'a of blessed memory.

The Cold Synagogue was the pride of Lakhva. It was a modest, wooden building in its external appearance. It was tall and high, due to its large dome. The inside of the building was full of artistic design.

Drawings of the beasts and birds mentioned in the Bible and in Aggadah [Talmudic lore] floated at the bottom of the dome and around the walls. They had great artistic charm, attractive to the eye. Anyone who delved into the wall drawings increased their appreciation of these works of art.

The crowning glory of the synagogue was the holy ark, etched in precious wood, and plated completely with gold. The etchings were miniatures. Each was a separate symbol of the holy service in the Temple. Together, they formed a symphony of artistic creation. This wonderful artistic expression would catch the eye. Above the doors of the holy ark were two cherubs with wings spread. When the ark was opened, the outstretched wings would touch each other.

In the “cold synagogue” there were rare holy objects and Torah scrolls that were hundreds of years old. They were a priceless treasury given their age and splendor.

The wonderful artistic drawings and etchings were the work of Shlomo the son of Yoel Zusman of Novhorodok. He was an unknown artist who came to the town and volunteered to carry out the holy work. He was a poor man, and throughout the three years that he toiled day and night at this holy task, he partook of his meals from the householders on a rotational basis. The sole reward that he allowed himself at the conclusion of the work was to etch his name, Shlomo the son of Yoel Zusman, at the bottom of the holy ark…

The splendid building and everything therein went up in the great fire that took place in Lakhva in 1926.

A great mourning fell upon the Jews of Lakhva. All of them wept bitterly over the mounds of destruction, and could not find comfort for themselves for weeks and months.

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Lakhva, as small as it was, was famous in the near and far region for its rabbis who were great in Torah, especially its rabbi who began the final rabbinical dynasty, the Berkovitz family. Rabbi Avraham Dov Ber Berkovitz occupied the rabbinical seat for 40 years. Toward the end of his life, he made aliya together with his wife to the Holy Land in 1896. He died in Jerusalem, and was laid to his final rest on the Mount of Olives.

His successor, his son Rabbi Yitzchak (Rabbi Itshele) Berkovitz, was great in Torah and loved his fellow. His name went before him as one of the best judges and arbitrators in interpersonal matters. He was especially noted for raising the level of education in the town. Until his last day, he did not neglect issues of the school, in which he invested great effort in strengthening and firming it up. He devoted much time and energy to those suffering from ill fortune, and he did a great deal for the mutual assistance funds, which helped many people in difficult situations.

After his death in the year 5694 [1934], the community appointed his sons-in-law Rabbi Eliezer (Rabbi Leizerke) Lichtenstein and Rabbi Avraham Chaim Zalman Osherovitz, may G-d avenge their blood, as rabbis. Both were great in Torah and well versed in interpersonal relations. They faithfully continued in the line of activity and diligence regarding the paths of communal life.

It fell to their lot to suffer along with the tormented community at the time of its destruction. They met their frightful deaths at the hand of the impure Nazis.

The shochtim [ritual slaughterers] in the city also left their mark on communal life:

Reb Noach the Shochet was affiliated with Karlin-Stolin Hassidism. He was involved in the difficult battle with the Misnagdim, and did not let up until he emerged victorious.

After his death, he was succeeded by his son Reb Matityahu the Shochet, a man of refined soul and precious spirit. He had a fine soul and a fine body, and he had great understanding of the youth movement and Zionism. He was connected to the enterprise of national renaissance with all strands of his soul ,and he demonstrated his connection to the movement at every opportunity. He merited, and his great dream was realized. He made aliya prior to the Holocaust, and he went to his fine repose here as well.

When he made aliya, he gave over his role to his son-in-law Reb Feivel Chinitz, who lovingly continued to guard the honor of the household and its traditions. He added to the repertoire of cantorial renditions and hymns that were expressed in the Hassidic melodies that emanated from that house. He drunk from the poison cup along with his holy martyred brethren, and perished together with them at the hands of the German murderers.

The network of mutual benefit organizations was exemplary in the town: Matan Beseter [Giving of gifts in secrecy] -- a special fund under the supervision of the rabbi that would give extend one time support to communal members who had become impoverished and lost their resources, and who hid the severity of their situation from the eyes of others to preserve their social status.

Matan Beseter was a secret assistance organization that did not extend a gift that was not to be returned, but rather extended loans until the person's situation would improve. In most cases, the loans of Matan Beseter were used to rehabilitate the livelihoods of those in need.

In 1890, the Kupat Gemach [Charitable fund] was set up. At its helm were Zusha Zatsarki (treasurer), and Eliezer Niman (Director). The money came to the fund from one-time donations from every household that had the means. The loans were restricted to a specific sum, and were given to all in need.

Those in need derived great benefit from it. Through its loans, tens of families succeeded in overcoming economic difficulties or in becoming engaged once again in income-producing work. The Kupat Gemach underwent many incarnations. Twice, its activities came to a halt for an extended period. However, faithful redeemers always came to the fore, whose dedication and diligence restarted its activities.

The Kupat Gemach that was restarted in 1926 provided assistance to the Jews of Lakhva until its conquest b the Soviet Army.

In 1926, a chapter of the People's Bank Fund was established in Lakhva. It contributed greatly in granting loans to those in need at their time of difficulty, and helped many in reestablishing their livelihoods.

It is appropriate to note the custom of “Private Charitable Funds.” This was a loan that a person received from his fellow at the time of greatest need. Reb Shalom Romanowsky[i] may G-d avenge his blood, was very active in this. His heart and pocket were always open to extend help to anyone in need during a time of difficulty, via a loan or support that was not expected to be paid back.

At the approach of Passover every year, a communal Maot Chittin[2] committee was established, headed by the rabbi. Its task was to raise money from the residents to provide for matzos and festival provisions, which were distributed on the eve of Passover to those in need, so that the joy of the Festival of Freedom would not be absent from any Jewish home. Much thought and energy was placed into organizing this endeavor. To this end, constant contact was maintained with Lakhva natives in America, who assisted greatly toward the success of this endeavor.

Indeed, those in need were also not abandoned for the rest of the year. There were tens of families in the town whose economic situation was always difficult, whose livelihoods did not succeed

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in basing themselves on work that brought in an income. There were families of people who were chronically ill, or whose wage-earner had died, leaving many orphans and widows without means. It was necessary to ensure their sustenance.

To help those people whose luck turned for the worse, righteous women volunteered to raise the necessary means. Sasha-Chaya Kirzner and Bracha Rimer were among the righteous women who excelled in their activities. They provided food for families in need. They would make the rounds to the doors of houses every week to collect bread, challos for the Sabbath, and foodstuffs, which would be distributed secretly and modestly to those in need.

The aspirations of the youth in the town for knowledge forged the way to social ideas that occupied the members of that generation of that era. The ferment against the oppressive Czarist regime penetrated to the hearts of many good people among the masses of the nations. Lakhva played an honorable role in nurturing the network of substantive underground revolutionary cells that awaited the sign to join the ranks of fighters when the time came to oppose the hated regime.

In 1905, when waves of the revolution stormed the expanses of Russia, ranks of involved youth also protested in the town, with revolutionary proclamations in their hands. The clandestine methodology developed within the ranks of the fighters, and activity leading to revolutionary ideas spread among the oppressed classes of the people.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of the Jewish youth did not join the Russian revolution. Their hearts and souls were devoted to the ideals of the Jewish people. At the beginning of the 1890s, the foundations of Chovevei Zion [the Movement of the Lovers of Zion] were laid. Its first steps were lacking in practical foundations. The organization was a form of gathering place for the acquisition of cultural values and Jewish knowledge. Its first practical activity was the founding of a library in 1895. Its founders were A. D. Slutsky, Lipa Eisenberg, and Jitlovitzky. It began to attract the youth thirsting for knowledge toward areas of Jewish thought. It did not have many books, but it was not lacking in anthologies and Hebrew and Russian newspapers of that era. The finest of the youth of the town drank and acquired knowledge from this modest wellspring.

With the founding of the library, the few activists of the organization saw success in their efforts. Many accepted the change that took place in their souls. The ideological-political concept of the Chovevei Zion movement penetrated many people, and their souls became intertwined with its lot.

From those days long ago until the conquest of the town by the Soviet regime in 1939, the banner of pioneering Zionism fluttered within it. Fathers and children drank from its wellsprings, and a generation of fighters who went out to battle against the accursed Nazis was forged from its doctrine.

The first Hebrew school was founded in Lakhva in 1910 by two teachers, the brothers Yitzchak Bochkin, may G-d avenge his blood, and Meir Bochkin, may he live. The Hebrew language became the foundation of education of the younger generation. With sure steps, they overcame the old teaching methodologies that were conducted in the Yiddish language. Within a brief period, they won over the hearts of the students and their parents. Yitzchak Bochkin did not abandon the teaching profession until his death. In that period, the founding of a school the teaching language of which was Hebrew was a major change in the education of the generation. He stood at the helm of all actions throughout the changes that came across the school during the course of its 30 years of existence. This was a daring act in castigating the teaching methodologies that had been in effect for many generations. Indeed, there were also melamdim [the traditional cheder teachers] who were masters of Torah and generous traits. However, they lacked the pedagogical approach of understanding the soul of the student. The students only had vacations in the period between terms (the Passover vacation, and during the High Holy Days). The school day lasted for 12 hours, and in the most extreme cases, up to 14-15 hours per day.

The Bochkin brothers were equipped with talents that were unknown in the town – a full understanding of the souls of the students. Through new pedagogical means, they turned the studies into an enjoyable experience in the eyes of the students. This was the first time that the students also saw life outside the walls of the cheder. Now, they had opportunities and times free for play, for reading a book, or for independent outlooks. The progress of the students of the school was astounding. Even those zealous for the traditional, fossilized teaching methodologies recognized this change.

The conclusion of the first round of studies in the Hebrew school of the Bochkin brothers solidified the fate of education in the town.

Some of the melamdim left teaching, and others adopted the new teaching methodology that was in place in the school of the Bochkin brothers. From that time, Yitzchak Bochkin became the lion in the society of teaching professionals in Lakhva. Old and young learned Torah from him, and he implanted a deep love for the Land of Israel in his students. In 1928, the thought of establishing a united school in Lakhva arose. The rabbis and the Orthodox people

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expected that the school would tend toward Agudas Yisroel, but Bochkin was among the leaders of those who stood in the breach, and tipped the scales toward the Zionist Yavneh[3] stream.

The Yavneh Hebrew School existed until 1939 and was the crowning glory of Hebrew-Zionist education in Lakhva. All the children of the town studied there, and its teachers imparted to the hearts of the students deep love for the ideas of national renaissance.

The large Tarbut Library played important role in forging the spiritual-Zionist image of the youth. It was filled with the finest of Israelite literature from all generations and eras, as well as works of the nations of the world. The library was a meeting place of the youth who hungered for knowledge. Its treasuries enriched them in the spirit of culture.

The books on the history and development of the Zionist movement served as material for deepening the knowledge of Zionism within the members of the youth movements.

When the revolution of the masses against the oppressive, tyrannical government broke out in 1917, the town also participated in the revolutionary activities and demonstrations.

In the wake of the civil war that broke out between the revolutionaries and army band against the government, the town transferred from hand to hand several times. This caused a decline of the economic situation of the residents, and their lives hung in the balance more than once.

The situation of the town was finally determined at the Brisk Treaty[4]. It was transferred to dwell under the protection[5] of the Polish government.

The Zionist and Hebrew movements came to an end by edict with the conquest of Lakhva by the Red Army in 1939. By edict, the government put an end to the activity of all communal institutions, and communal life in the town ceased. Then, small groups of friends got together and went underground to continue to maintain clandestine connections with the movement.

Thus, the heritage was preserved until the town fell to the hands of the German hangmen. Indeed, the national heritage turned into a pyre of burning flames on the bitter day when the murderers waved their axe over the tormented martyrs.

The bloody battle between the defenseless people who were taking revenge and the mauling beast, armed from head to toe with finest weapons of murder, was the fruit of the Zionist-Hebrew education, that could not be quenched by the fear of the enemy.

On 22 Elul 5702 [1942], the grave of Jewish life in Lakhva was covered over. The era of hundreds of years of life and activity was silenced forever. The fruitful roots of the tree, for which generations of toilers sacrificed their souls to set up their homes under its shade, was cut down completely.

Jewish Lakhva once was and is no more.

Let all of us, the survivors of the generation of killing, bear the memory of Jewish Lakhva in our hearts and souls, for our town was to us a symbol of everything sublime and holy. Let there be a memorial candle to our parents and teachers who tended to us mercifully.


Translator / Coordinator Footnote:

  1. Sholom Romanowsky's granddaughter, Evelyn Romanowsky Ripp, recalls this generosity in her memoir, The Abandoned, A Life Apart from Life (3rd edition, 2015, p. 21). [N. Lichtenstein, coordinator] Return


Original Footnotes:

  1. “1000 years of Pinsk” page 55. Return
  2. Charitable drive for Passover needs. Literally “Money for Wheat” – referring to the provision of matzos for Passover. Return
  3. The Yavneh schools did not abandon Orthodoxy. They could be regarded as modern Orthodox, with a Zionist tendency. Return
  4. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Brest-Litovsk Return
  5. The wording here ‘To be protected under the shade’ – I interpret as mildly ironic… Return


[Columns 283-284]

The Rabbis of Lakhva

A. Katz and Y. Z. Krikon

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Donated by Natalie Lichtenstein

1. The Rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Avraham Dov Ber Berkovitz of blessed memory

Lakhva, which was a small town, was known in a praiseworthy way because of the Gaonic rabbis who occupied its rabbinic seat from generation to generation. The Gaon and Tzadik Rabbi Avraham Dov-Ber was the rabbi of Kazhan-Haradok from 5619 [1859], and then moved to Lakhva. Rabbi Avraham Dov-Ber was born in the city of Davyd-Haradok in the year 5585 [1825]. He was recognized for his fine traits while still a lad, and it was noted that he will be a Nazirite to G-d[i] and was created for greatness. He became known for his sublime traits and deep diligence. When he was ten years old, the Gaon Rabbi Yaakov Meir Padwa, the head of the rabbinical court of Brisk [Brest Litovsk] examined him in his studies as he was passing through Pinsk. At the age of 12, a desire was awakened in his heart to study Kabbala. He would study the Kabbalistic book Eitz Chaim by Rabbi Chaim Vital with great interest. By the age of 15, he was studying Kabbala on a regular basis, as he delved both into the revealed and hidden [i.e. mystical] aspects of G-d's Torah. His wife, the pious Rebbetzin Beila-Chaya was the daughter of Rabbi Yaakov Nachman Lifschitz, the grandson of Rabbi Hirsch Chasid who was famous throughout the Volhynia region. He was supported at his father-in-law's table for 18 years. He loved Torah, was fond of rabbis, and his mouth never stopped uttering words of learning. The elders of the generation said of him: at night he sits and learns holding a lit candle between his fingers. The flame would be close to him so that he would wake up if he fell asleep as the flame reached his fingers. His order of study was as follows: He would study a [Talmudic] tractate, and review it in great depth three times. After each tractate, he would study all the laws [halachot] related to that tractate, from the Code of Jewish Law [Shulchan Aruch] along with the commentaries of the Gr‘a [Gaon of Vilna], and review them three times. Using that order, he completed the entire Talmud and four sections of the Code of Jewish Law 18 times throughout his lifetime. Thus, he studied the entire Talmud and Code of Jewish Law 54 times[ii]. His power of studying Torah, Talmud, and halachic decisors was great, as was his knowledge and expertise in books of mysticism. He had hundreds of works of Kabbala in his library, and he studied them day and night. He took special interest in the Kabbalistic works of the Gr‘a. Just as he gave over his soul to the pillar of Torah, so did he give over his soul to the pillar of Divine service[iii]. His custom in the manner of holiness was to arise at midnight, to sanctify himself with ritual immersion, and to recite the midnight lamentation [Tikkun Chatzot][iv] and occupy himself with Torah until he would recite the morning service at daybreak. During his prayers, he would stand with his face to the wall without moving his body, like a stone. The Siddur of the Ar‘i of blessed memory would be open before him, and soft moans would bust forth from his inner soul. That was his way with prayer. He would minimize mundane talk. On Sabbaths and festivals, he would respond to anyone who asked him a question only in matters of what is permitted and forbidden, and only in the Holy Tongue [i.e. Hebrew]. His tefillin would be on his head and arm all day, but he made efforts to hide them from onlookers. He did not partake of meat throughout most of his years, until his old age when he became weaker. He did not benefit from the pleasures of this world. He did not even partake of the meal at the wedding of his own son. He only ate a piece of coarse bread, and hid this so it would not be sensed by those partaking of the feast. He never ate wheat bread or drank liquor out of a concern for [the prohibition of eating produce of] new crops[v]. He would not eat cooked fruit of concern for [the prohibition of eating] worms. He was a weak man of low energy by nature. In his old age, he walked with difficultly, bent over and leaning on his cane. However, when he came to a Simchat Beit Shoeva[vi], he turned into a youthful, strong man, and would dance with great enthusiasm. The dancers would have to take turns [as they got tired], but he, the old, weak man, with clothes drenched in sweat, did not feel any weariness, as he would leap and dance like a soul without a body. Just as he was dedicated with all his soul to Torah and Divine service, so did he uphold the pillar of charitable deeds. Even though he lived a life of meager means, he would set aside a significant portion of his salary to distribute discreetly to the poor. He did not want to receive gifts from his many visitors. He only agreed to take donations on occasion from people of means so he could distribute them to the poor, or to purchase books which were the source of his life. Those of bitter spirit suffering from depression would share their pains with him, and find comfort from his holy words. In his old age, the number of people seeking his advice and blessings grew greatly.

His desire to make aliya to the Land of Israel was very great. He set out to actualize this in the year 5659 [1899]. Despite his growing weakness, all efforts by his acquaintances, his children, and those who

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who revered him to dissuade him from his travels were for naught. He responded, “‘If not now, when?’[vii]. And I am certain that G-d will bring me to my desired destination in peace.” On Tuesday, Elul 2 5659, he took leave of his children and his mass of followers. Then, those gathered witnessed a wonderful scene. The weak, old man who could barely rise from bed suddenly girded himself with energy on the day of his journey. He ran to the synagogue and the two Beis Midrashes, bid the people farewell with holy trembling and blessed all those gathered with an appropriate blessing, that the desires of their heart be fulfilled in a good way. He set out on his journey with great joy. He was summoned to the Heavenly Yeshiva one month after he arrived in the Land of Israel. His soul departed in purity on Monday, 28 Tishrei 5660 [1899], and his honorable place of repose is on the Mount of Olives.[1]

 

2. The Rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Tzvi (Rabbi Itchele) of blessed memory

Rabbi Avraham Dov-Ber left behnd three sons, who were three fathers of the Torah. The eldest was Rabbi David, known as Reb Dovidl, who was educated under his influence. He was appointed as the rabbi in the city of Davyd-Haradok in the year 5650 [1890]. Like his father, he did not enjoy any of the pleasures of this world. He did not eat meat and was discreet and self-effacing. When he would come to visit his brother Rabbi Yitzchak Tzvi, the rabbi of Lakhva, he was looked upon with holy awesomeness and treated with reverence and respect. He was short and thin, as if a soul without a body. His mouth never desisted from learning, and his entire essence was holy. His second son was the Gaon and Tzadik Rabbi Mordechai, may the memory of the holy be blessed, the son-in-law of Rabbi Chaim Teitelbaum who had made aliya to the holy city of Jerusalem. His third son was the rabbi and Tzadik Rabbi Yitzchak-Tzvi, who served in holiness in Lakhva after his father, may the memory of the holy be blessed.

The Gaon and Tzadik Rabbi Yitzchak Tzvi was nicknamed Rabbi Itche, or the Elder Tzadik. He was born in the year 5618 [1858]. He excelled with his sublime talents from his youth, to the point where he became a great tree[viii], and his name spread in a praiseworthy manner. Many of the Gaonim of the generation ordained him and talked greatly about his merits. He served as a teacher in Kazhan-Haradok without receiving remuneration. He accepted the rabbinical post to fill the place of his father in the year 5659 [1898]. Not only did he inherit the rabbinical seat from his father, but also his generous personality and sublime traits. Like his father, he would welcome guests in a large-scale fashion, and his home was open wide to anyone who would come – poor people, charitable emissaries, and preachers. He would help anyone in need, not only with money but also with good advice. He greeted every person pleasantly. Like his father, his holy custom was to always worship from a prayer book in his set place, in a corner at the right side next to the holy ark. He would stand for prayer, and at times utter a silent groan filled with melancholy. His thick eyebrows and gaze exuded wisdom and holy splendor. He was loved and revered. Even the gentiles looked upon him with reverence and honor. They would approach him with greetings as he walked to the synagogue, so as to receive a blessing from him. He would respond to everyone with a blessing, and would even be the first to initiate the greeting. He only worshipped in the Cold Synagogue a few times a year, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah and on the night of Simchat Torah. He would worship in the Beis Midrash the rest of the year. He minimized mundane speech and would sit and learn. He taught a class in Mishna after the [morning] services, and would do so again between Mincha and Maariv. He would learn with a quiet melody. His home was filled with bookshelves packed with books. The margins of his Gemaras and other books were filled with his handwritten novellae, notes, and corrections. All of his manuscripts were written out and collected by Yosef Wiener, may G-d avenge his blood (Yosel Chaim Sloike's). He sat in the rabbi's house for a great deal of time, collecting and writing out the manuscripts of the rabbi. He had many manuscripts of responsa that were not published. All the books and manuscripts were destroyed with the destruction of the city. The rabbi's livelihood came from the sale of yeast and candles. He was not involved at all in matters of livelihood. The entire home economy was conducted by his wife, the wise and righteous Rebbetzin Esther Malka of blessed memory, who conducted the matters of the household with great wisdom. His sermons on Shabbat HaGadol and Shabbat Shuva were filled with sublime ideas. His words came from the heart and penetrated the hearts of the listeners.

He died in the year 5694 [1934], and all the residents of the city were overtaken by deep mourning. Rabbis from the entire area came to participate in his funeral. His candle was not extinguished and his heritage was not cut off with his death. His sons-in-law, the two great luminaries the rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Eliezer Aryeh and the rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Chaim Zalman occupied the rabbinical seat of Lakhva after him, and followed in his light and footsteps. They ministered to their flock in accordance with his path.

[Columns 287-288]

3. Rabbi Eliezer Aryeh Lichtstein, and the Rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Avraham Chaim Zalman Osherovitz – may G-d avenge their blood[ix]

Lak288.jpg
 
Lak287.jpg
The Rabbi and Gaon Avraham Chaim Zalman Osherovitz
Note: the photo is missing in the original
 
Rabbi Eliezer Aryeh Lichtstein

 

The rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Eliezer Aryeh Lichtstein (nicknamed Rabbi Eliezerke) was the son of Rabbi Mordechai, the author of Mitzvot Halevavot. His father was a native of Lakhva. He studied from and was ordained as a rabbi by the Gaon the Ria‘s, may the memory of the holy be blessed. He [i.e. his father] was the rabbi in Stakhuv in 5647 [1887], in Nabla in 5661 [1901], and then in Malaryita. His book Mitzvot Halevavot is an explanation of the laws dependent on the heart, and the purity of the heart and character traits. It was printed twice: the first edition in the year 5668 [1908] in Warsaw, and the second edition in Brisk of Lita [Brest Litovsk]. He also left manuscripts of halachic responsa and midrash commentary in a straightforward style. His son Rabbi Eliezerke sat on the rabbinical seat in his hometown, thereby returning the Torah to its original home. His second son-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Chaim Osherovitz, the son of the rabbi and Tzadik Rabbi Yaakov Moshe, was born in the year 5628 [1868] and was educated by the Netzi‘v and Ria‘s. He was appointed as the rabbi of Kartuz-Bereza. The two rabbis served in the holy role in Lakhva after the death of their father-in-law Rabbi Yitzchak Tzvi. They followed his path both in diligence in the study of Torah as well as in charity. Through the initiative of Rabbi Eliezerke, whose entire aim and desire was education, a school was founded in Lakhva that ran under his strict supervision. His entire aspiration was that the children would enter Yeshiva after concluding school so they could continue their Torah studies. Rabbi Chaim Zalman founded a Tiferet Bachurim group in Lakhva, that would gather in the Beis Midrash every evening and study Gemara and bible under his direction.

[Columns 289-290]

Rabbi Eliezerke wandered through various countries for several years – England, Switzerland, Holland, and others – to collect money for the famous, large Mir Yeshiva. Rabbi Eliezerke was a fine speaker, who enthused the hearts with his speeches. The synagogue would be filled to the brim when the rabbis preached to the community. In their sermons, they preached not only words of reproof, but also words of comfort and support, as they urged the community toward repentance and good deeds.

When the Russians entered the city in 1939, and the cheders and Yeshivas were closed, Torah lessons for the youth were arranged clandestinely, and they supported them to the extent that was possible. After the circle closed in, they traveled to Vilna and connected there to the JOINT [Joint Distribution Committee] and other such organizations. They transferred many of the youth to there, and set them up there so that they could continue their studies. On occasion they even endangered themselves for this work. When the Yeshivas were forced to escape from Vilna as well, they decided to transfer them to Japan. A great deal of money was required to carry out the transfer to Japan (at least 180 dollars per lad). The money was obtained through the efforts of Rabbi Leizerke. He dedicated much effort and energy until the last lad was transferred. Then he returned to Lakhva. Their friends and those who revered them urged them to move their families to Vilna as well and to join together with them to transfer to Japan. They did not accede to their request, saying that they would travel with all their brethren of Lakhva in a single ship in the sea filled with tribulations, and that it is forbidden for them to jump ship and abandon them. They returned to their flock to offer help and support in the deteriorating situation, to revive their spirits to the extent possible. They gave their lives for their community, the community of Yeshurun[x]. They were murdered together with them in sanctification of the Divine Name.

 

4. The Rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak David Mincberg, may G-d avenge his blood

The rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak-David Mincberg, who was born in Łuków in the year 5662 [1902], was the son of the Gaon and Tzadik Rabbi Yerachmiel-Yeshaya, the rabbi of the communities of Zduńska Wola and Łuków. From his youth, he was immersed in studies of Talmud, in the revealed and hidden Torah. He followed the Hassidic path and was close to the Admor of Ger. He had a sharp mind and straightforward intellect. He was also a dedicated communal activist in the educational arena, as one of the founders of the Yesodei Hatorah and Beis Yaakov school networks. By his nature, he was modest in his ways, and he rejected recommendations of rabbinical appointments in cities and communities that chose him. He was one of the heads of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva prior to the outbreak of the war. Later, he served in the rabbinate in Ostrów Mazowiecka. He arrived in Lakhva in 1939 as he was fleeing from the Nazis. His wife and seven children were deported to Siberia, and the rabbi remained in Lakhva with his elderly mother-in-law.

From the day of his arrival, he took his place as the spiritual leader of the entire Jewish population, and especially concerned himself with assisting the Jewish refugee families from Poland. Since he was great in Torah and wisdom, he was a spiritual guide and advisor to the Jewish committee. When any decree would become known, the chairman of the committee, Rabbi Eliezer Lichtstein, and Rabbi Chaim Zalman Osherovitz would consult with Rabbi Yitzchak-David Mincberg to form ideas about how to avert the evil and minimize the harshness of the decree. His ideas and advice were a great support and assistance to Dov Lopatin in saving the local community from the blade of the sword that was hovering over their necks. The advice of Rabbi Yitzchak-David played a large role in the great achievement, that throughout the 14 months of the existence of the Jewish population under Nazi rule in Lakhva, not one Jew was killed.

When he was in Lakhva during the period of Soviet occupation, he never stopped his communal activity. He made efforts to send packages of matzos to the exiles in Siberia for Passover.

On the day of the establishment of the ghetto in Lakhva, Rabbi Yitzchak-David Mincberg was seen standing together with the local rabbis, wearing their tallis and tefillin and reciting Shema Yisrael as they fell in sanctification of the Divine Name.

(Tovia Mekubar)


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. This is not meant to be taken literally. It means that he was immersed in spiritual pursuits. Return
  2. From this number, it is clear that the first pass was included in the three times. i.e. he reviewed two times over and above his initial pass. Return
  3. Based on Pirkei Avot 1:2. Return
  4. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tikkun_Chatzot Return
  5. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chadash Return
  6. A festive celebration on the nights of Sukkot. Return
  7. Pirkei Avot 1:14. Return
  8. Based on Daniel 4:8. Return
  9. In other sections of this book, the name was spelled as Lichteinstein Return
  10. A Biblical term for the People of Israel. Return


Original Footnote:

  1. From the Oholei Shem book. Return


[Columns 291-292]

Men of Torah

Ch. A. Michaeli

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Donated by Natalie Lichtenstein

Chumash Societies

There were two Chumash Societies in the town. One was the “Old” Chumash Society taught by Reb David Slutzky, and the other was the “New” Chumash Society in which Reb Yitzchak Bokchin disseminated Torah.

Every Sabbath before Mincha, hundreds of Jews would sit around the long tables in the Beis Midrash and the shtibel at it side, and enjoy the novel Torah ideas on the weekly Torah portion.

The style of study in the two societies was as different as the different temperaments of the teachers. Reb David Slutzky had a fine soul, and would treat his audience with Aggadah [lore] and parables. His style of teaching was directed toward the simple Jew who was not expert in the “small letters”[i], and would be satisfied with a chapter of Chumash. Even though there were “experts” among his audience, he would tune his style to impart knowledge and the love of Torah to the simple folk.

Reb Yitzchak Botchkin's teaching style was different. It was based on the straightforward explanation with examples from daily life, and his mastery of the treasury of the early and latter commentators on Talmudic literature. His classes were noted for weaving together deep ideas with the simple explanation.

Reb Yitzchak knew how to forge a bridge between himself and the audience. A populist charm was spread over his class from beginning to end. It was filled with life wisdom and understanding of the Torah commentators.

The common factor between the two teachers of the Chumash Societies was their tendency to Zionism. They were both connected to the national revival movement with all strands of their souls, and were among the activists and spokespeople of the movement in the town.

All of their classes on the weekly Torah portion were imbued with love of Zion and the settlement of the Land. They played a great role in Zionist activity in all strata of the community.

Membership in the Chumash Society was dependent on the acceptance of the charter. The main items of the charter were as follows:

  1. Regular participation in the classes on the weekly Torah portion.
  2. Payment of monthly dues.
  3. Obligatory participation in the celebration of Moses of blessed memory on 7 Adar.[ii]
  4. Obligation to attend prayer services in the home of a deceased member during the 30 days of mourning.
On the eve of the 7th of Adar, the gabbaim [trustees] would go out to arrange a celebration in the home of one of the members. They set up drinks and pastries prepared by the wives of the gabbaim. The teacher would deliver a lecture about Moses and about the study of Torah in privacy as well as with the community.

Some of those gathered would go out singing and dancing to the light of candles to invite the rabbi to the celebration. The rabbi would also deliver a lecture on the topic of the day to the gathering.

At the end of the celebration, there would be elections for new gabbaim for the upcoming year. They would choose based on two cards with notes – in accordance with the number of members. There were names on one note, and one was empty. The word gabbai was written on three of them.

Two children would take out the notes. The three people who received a note with the word gabbai earned the right to serve as gabbai of the organization for the entire year.

After the election, those gathered would burst out in song and blessings for the new gabbaim.

When a member of the Chumash Society died, the gabbaim would bring a Torah scroll to his house and would worship there throughout the 30 days of mourning.

If a member immigrated to America and died there, his family members would inform the gabbaim of the organization. They would announce the death to the members, so that they could direct their prayers during the 30-day mourning period for the elevation of the soul.

Year after year passed, and the regulations were maintained meticulously, as set out in the charter of the organization by its original founders.

[Columns 293-294]

Tehillim [Psalms] Society

The Tehillim Society was an organization for the simple folk and the workers.

The recitation of Psalms did not demand scholarship and expertise. Anyone familiar with the 22 letters of the aleph bet could join the society.

The Tehillim Society also had a charter set up in legal fashion. The gabbaim and members were meticulous about it.

Every Sabbath morning, all the members would gather in the Beis Midrash to recite Psalms together. One person would lead the gathering, and the congregation would respond chapter by chapter.

The public recitation of Psalms also took place between Musaf and Mincha on the High Holy Days and the festival of Shavuot, the day that marks the death of King David.

On one of the evenings of Chanukah, the exiting gabbaim would arrange a celebration, with the participation of all the members. At that event, the new gabbaim for the upcoming year would be elected, and a lottery would take place to determine which chapters of Psalms would be allotted to each member to recite throughout the year.

The main principle was to ensure a complete recitation of the entire Book of Psalms each day.

On weekdays, many of the members were busy from sunrise with their livelihoods outside the town. These included the fishermen, the butchers, and the barge floaters would be absent from their homes most of the days of the week.

Therefore, each member was allotted two chapters of Psalms for the year, which they were obligated to recite each day at the conclusion of the Shacharit service.

The lottery for the chapters of Psalms took place as follows: 75 notes were placed on cards adorned with verses of Psalms. Two chapters of Psalms were written on each card according to the order. One of the gabbaim would read out the names of the members, who would come forward to receive their notes. A second gabbai would register in the membership roster the chapters of Psalms allotted to each person.

Many did not restrict themselves to merely reciting two chapters, and would add other chapters of Psalms each day. When a member died, the members would gather in his home to recite Psalms.

On the Sabbath, it was the custom to awaken the members for the recital of Psalms. Reb Eliezer Neiman served in this holy role [as the waker] for many years. In the summer and winter, he would knock on the doors of the members, waking them up for the service of the Creator. In the winter, he had to forge his path through the quicksand and torrential rain, and in the autumn – in snowstorms and cold[iii].

The Tehillim Society had the pleasantness of populist simplicity, and clear, straightforward service of G-d.

(Ch. A. Michaeli)

 

Holiday and Festival

The entire town – men, women, and children – would gather together for the Simchat Beit Hashoeva[iv]. Reb Asher Muzikant and his band would conduct the pleasant celebration, which would inspire even the sworn Misnagdim in the community to dance.

That evening, Reb Asher, who was accustomed to participating in many celebrations, would display his variegated folk singing talents. He would join the stream of dancing celebrants as the band leader, and would dominate the entire large celebration.

The celebration would begin with the “auction” of the rabbi's goblet of wine. Anyone wishing to merit this honor would add to the “price” until the appropriate price for this honor was reached.

The income from the “auction of the goblet” was designated for charitable purposes. The band would break out in song in honor of the winner, and the gathering would respond with feeling.

The crowd of those present was honored with the recitation of the verses of Shir Hamaalot[v]. Reb Asher would sing popular songs between each verse. After the song, verses of jest would be spoken by Reb Lipa Moravchik, nicknamed Lipa Chishe's.

Reb Lipa's verses (known as grammen) were famous throughout the region. He could construct verse after verse for a long time, as the gathering joined him with song and melody.

When his heart was merry, the people around enjoyed the power of his memory

[Columns 295-296]

as he reviewed difficult Talmudic discussions that he had studied in Yeshiva during his youth.

 

Simchat Torah

The atmosphere of Simchat Torah was already felt in the city on Shemini Atzeret. The children carried flags, with a candle stuck in a carrot atop the flag, to fulfil that which was written “for the candle is a mitzvah and the Torah is light”[vi]. The adults went to the Chumash Society (there were two Chumash Societies in Lakhva: the Old Society and the New Society) to read the Torah portion of Vezot Habracha and to conclude the Torah, as is written in the Code of Jewish Law (Orach Chaim section 669): “We call the holiday Simchat Torah [Rejoicing of the Torah], as we are happy at the conclusion of the Torah.” At the conclusion of the study of the portion, they would go to the rabbi's house to accompany him to the synagogue. This custom was already in place during the days of Rabbi Yitzchak-Tzvi (Rabbi Itche the elder Tzadik). I recall that the elder Tzadik would sit at the table in a big armchair wearing a cylinder [top hat], with his face radiating holiness. They would drink a toast [lechaim] and dance, and the entire congregation accompanied the rabbi to the large synagogue (The Cold Synagogue). The crowd filled the street. The children walked with their flags lit with candles. Reb Mordechai Waskobinik (Mordechai Chana Eidel's) marched at the head of the procession. He had many children. He was a builder by profession, and was observant. After his hard work every day, he would study lessons in Torah and Gemara, and all his deeds were for the sake of Heaven. He would serve as prayer leader on the High Holidays and weep bitterly during the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, for his full heart and all the strands of his soul pleaded for mercy for himself and those who designated him. Indeed, he also knew how to rejoice and dance on Simchat Torah, as he recited “I will rejoice and be glad with this Torah, for is our strength and light”[vii]. He conducted the entire choir who were accompanying the rabbi to the synagogue. During the Hakafot [Torah processions] the women would crowd together so they could kiss the Torah scrolls or touch the mantle of the scrolls. The joy and dancing reached their pinnacle during the Hakafot. The entire congregation accompanied the rabbi to his home after the Hakafot and the services. In the synagogue of the Hassidim, the Hakafot would go on very late under the direction of Reb Matityahu, the shochet of the city. Throughout all his days, Reb Matityahu served G-d in joy. He was quick and nimble on his feet during the Hakafot, as he danced with everyone with great feeling and enthusiasm. He also did not rest the following day after the services and the Hakafot, but rather girded his strength to continue to rejoice and bring joy. Many went with him from house to house, holding hands, arm in arm, with their mouths full of song. They continued the joy and enthusiasm in honor of the Torah throughout the entire day.

(Avraham Katz)


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. Referring to the commentaries alongside the text of the Bible, Talmud, and law codes, generally written in small letters. Return
  2. 7 Adar is traditionally observed as both the birthday and yahrzeit of Moses. Return
  3. It seems as if something is reversed in this sentence. Return
  4. A celebration on the nights of Sukkot. Return
  5. Psalms 120-134. Return
  6. Proverbs 6:23. Return
  7. A verse of a Simchat Torah hymn. Return

 

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