by Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Yosepov
(member of the Rabbinate of Haifa)
Translated by Shulamit Berman
|Notes: The author of this article, Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Yosepov, was one of the numerous grandchildren of Rabbi Mordechai Lerner, many of whom were important rabbis in Volhynia. Rabbi Yosepov's mother, Yocheved, the eldest daughter of Rabbi Mordechai Lerner, married Rabbi Baruch Halevi Yosepov, who was a rabbi in Dubno. The author, Shmuel Yosepov, immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s, settling in Haifa. He wrote The Book of the House of Shmuel, enumerating the names of his many relatives who perished in the Holocaust. He noted dates of death, if known, so that kaddish could be recited for them on that day each year.|
Rabbi Mordechai Lerner was the grandson of the righteous and holy Rabbi Mordechai of Lakhovits (in Polesia) and son-in-law of the righteous and holy Rabbi Yosef of Radzivil [Radzivilov].
Rabbi Mordechai Lerner served as the admor (chief rabbi) and av bet din (head of the Jewish court of jurisprudence) of Shumsk for nearly forty years, famed for his brilliance and piety. He was renowned throughout Volhynia.
[In 1898] he traveled to the home of his daughter [Chavale], the wife of the great Rabbi Mechel Tobman, who served as av bet din of Slavuta, to attend a brit mila (bris). On his way home by way of the town of Kinov he suddenly fell ill and died soon after. He was buried in Kinov, because before his death he had instructed that he should not be moved from wherever he died.
The entire town of Shumsk was present at his funeral. One of his disciples cried out at his grave that if his righteous teacher was no more, he wanted to be buried alongside him. And indeed, he died on the spot and merited to be buried next to the grave.
Rabbi Mordechai Lerner's wife, the rebbetzin Reizel, was noted for her appearance, her wisdom, and her generous heart. Immediately after the death of her sainted husband she turned all the rooms of their home below the first floor into a Talmud Torah (religious school) for the children of the poor people of Shumsk, supporting it from her own pocket, from money she earned by selling gold jewelry for many years. She also provided indigent brides with wedding gifts of rings and other jewelry.
Their oldest son was my uncle, the famous Rabbi Yisrael Dov-Beirinyo Lerner. While his father was alive Rabbi Yisrael Dov-Beirinyo was the av bet din of Volochisk but after his father's death in 1898 he was appointed av bet din of Shumsk in his father's place.
Rabbi Yisrael Dov-Beirinyo's wife, the rebbetzin Faygele, was the daughter of Rabbi Yitzhak Wertheim of Bender. Since they were childless, the couple opened their home to provide hospitality to everyone who passed through Shumsk.
My uncle also gave room and board to exceptional young married men and yeshiva students. He himself taught them Mishnah until they were qualified to teach Jewish subjects.
|An excerpt from a listing of rabbis, by town|
I, the writer of these lines, personally merited to study in my early years with my father (now deceased) and afterward I studied for some years with my uncle Rabbi Beirinyo. I received semicha (rabbinical ordination) from him and other Volhynia rabbis.
The death of Rabbi Beirinyo at the age of 58 occurred during the time of the murderous Petliurites and other bandits who entered Shumsk, took the rabbi hostage and held him for an enormous ransom. Since there was no possibility of raising the required sum, they tortured him to death. He died on the 2nd day of Nisan 1918. May his blood be avenged.
After the death of Rabbi Beirinyo my brother-in-law Rabbi Yosef Mechel Rabin, the son of my uncle who was the rabbi of Lanovits, was appointed to the position of av bet din of Shumsk. My brother-in-law Yosef Mechel was a student of my uncle, Rabbi Dov-Beirinyo Lerner of Shumsk. Rabbi Yosef Mechel Rabin perished in Shumsk, along with his wife Hasya (who was my sister) and their three children, at the hands of the murderous Nazis during the Holocaust. May their blood be avenged.
The second son of Rabbi Mordechai was Rabbi Yitzhak Lerner, av bet din of Radzivil [Radzivilov]. He and his family perished during the Holocaust. May their blood be avenged.
His third son was Rabbi Avraham Lerner of Ostrog. He too perished along with his family during the Holocaust. May their blood be avenged.
The oldest daughter of Rabbi Mordechai was my mother, Yocheved. She married my father, Rabbi Baruch Halevi Yosepov of Dubno, who died in 1926. I was with my father when he passed away. To my great sorrow, my mother and all her extended family died in the Holocaust. May their blood be avenged.
Rabbi Mordechai Lerner's second daughter, Chavale, died with her entire family in the town of Slavuta during the Holocaust. May their blood be avenged.
His third daughter, Faygele, whose husband was the admor of Kremenets, made her way to Israel where she died in the fullness of years.
Their youngest daughter was the rebbetzin in Lanovits. She perished, along with her entire family, during the Holocaust. May their blood be avenged.
by Rafael Sapir (Sefarim)
Translated by Sandy Bloom
|Notes: Rabbi Beirinyo, as he was affectionately called, was born in 1867. His full name was Yisroel Dov Ber Lerner, and he was the eldest son of Rabbi Mordechai Lerner, who served as the rabbi of Shumsk and head of its religious court for over 35 years. In 1900 Rabbi Yisroel Dov/Beirinyo Lerner was appointed as a rabbi of Volochisk. With the death of his father in 1907 Rabbi Beirinyo was called back to Shumsk to serve as his father's successor. He died in the typhus epidemic of 1919.|
Shal naalecha, Remove thy shoes in this holy site!
With awe and reverence I take upon myself the blessed task of describing the pure and holy Rabbi Beirinyo. As I approach this mission, I am filled with a strong sense of responsibility akin to a sofer stam (Jewish scribe who transcribes sacred religious writings). I am deeply distressed that I cannot narrate all his wonderful actions and include all the aspects of his illuminating figure because I knew him for only a short time. We were also divided by the different viewpoints and opinions we held. Thus I am forced to make do with isolated descriptions of his life, of which the crowning glory was: rescuing Jews from the goyim (non-Jews). His rescue actions were repeated over and over, with great self-sacrifice and without receiving any kind of compensation for his efforts.
Rabbi Beirinyo was a man of truth in all his actions, and completely fulfilled the mitzvah mentioned in the Shaharit prayers. May a person always be Yerei Shamayim (God-fearing), in private and in public, and be a person of truth. He viewed this as a command given to him personally.
[Ironically,] the first reception our family received from him was not pleasant at all. When World War I erupted we fled from our border town in fear of our oppressor, unable to take anything with us; we arrived in Shumsk penniless. We chose Shumsk because it was somewhat far from the front lines and we opened a Tarbut school there, Father zl (may his memory be for a blessing) and myself. Then we were urgently summoned to the rabbi. As soon as we appeared, he fell upon us with harsh words, saying I will pursue and persecute you to the ends of the Earth. I will not allow you to disseminate words of heresy through the Krinsky1 books (Harstomatya, which was used a lot in those days). The controversy between us was terrible; it was a matter of life or death to both sides.
Rabbi Beirinyo was, on the one hand, a very pious Jew who painstakingly observed all the mitzvot and faithfully tended to his congregation like the shepherd tends to his flock, lest they be tempted to abandon Torah Judaism. While he was entirely a man of mercy and lovingkindness, he brooked no compromises [in religious matters] and would fight bitterly, taking vengeance like a snake, as befits a talmid chacham (a learned scholar). Then, on the other hand, there was us: a large family that escaped from its town on the front lines by the skin of its teeth, leaving everything behind and lacking all basic necessities. Our profession was teaching the Hebrew language; our livelihood and existence depended on being involved in a local school. Just as Rabbi Beirinyo was adamant and resolute about his beliefs, so the founders [of the Tarbut schools] were adamant about their lofty goal of disseminating Hebrew culture. Clearly there were many obstacles and mishaps but despite it all, a [Tarbut] school was opened in Shumsk and continued to exist.
Eventually, Rabbi Beirinyo actually perused Krinsky's books and came to the realization that it wasn't as terrible as he had thought. This study-text quoted sayings of the Sages, texts from the Talmud, and sections from other holy writings. When he saw this, he did not hesitate to change his mind. Eventually he even set aside part of his large house house for the school. Meanwhile the school grew and as a result, it moved from the rabbi's home to other places; the number of pupils kept increasing, and eventually there was no appropriate structure to house everyone.
The rabbi viewed justice and righteousness as one of the pillars of existence of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, and he dealt with it at all times. But his real nobility emerged during the First World War2. The front lines demanded more and more victims, but Jewish youths had no interest in sacrificing themselves to protect the horrific government of [the Russian Czar] Nicholas II. Therefore, they shirked their army duty to the best of their ability.
At that point, Rabbi Berinyo opened his doors to all the draft-dodgers but mainly to those from poor families, whose housing conditions did not allow for creating proper hiding places. Thus draft dodgers came from far and wide to hide in the rabbi's secret shelter.
This became known to too many people throughout Russia: that somewhere, out in a far-flung town, was a mysterious and wonderful man. This man hid draft-dodgers in his home: he fed them, gave them what to drink, and put them up in his home full board, without charging a penny.
Young men formed groups and came from nearby towns and far-flung places as well, places with names that were unfamiliar to us. When circumstances allowed, these youths (their numbers reached the dozens) filled the Beit Medrash (religious study hall) in the rabbi's large house, thus Torah study was upheld. The more learned ones delved into the gemarrah (Talmud). Those who were not expert in the Talmud read Tanach (the Bible) and chapters of Tehillim (Psalms). The rabbi actively encouraged them to learn Torah; he really believed that they would be delivered from the evil [Russian] monarchy, by virtue of their Torah study.
The number of young fellows rose from day to day, and eventually the house became too small to contain them. The rabbi lost control over events, and was not master of his own home. When he would try to turn someone away for lack of room, he would do this weakly. There were those who did not listen and simply moved in, and the rabbi was forced to accept the fait accompli. After all, how could he expel a fellow Jew who had risked his life to make the trip? Thus the number of Beit Medrash youths rose from day to day while the rabbi took care of their security and their food. It is a secret to this very day, how the rabbi secured the enormous means to provide for his sons, as he called them; he was actually childless.
We can guess that most of the money was contributed by the townspeople. Even in regular times, the local Jews would send him pidyonot (donations in exchange for personal requests) and gifts. He received only a minuscule salary as rabbi, which never covered the costs of running the house in which he hosted guests his entire life.
In quiet, regular times the rabbi's Beit Medrash and several private rooms housed the sons most of whom were not local people. Each of them would return to their home, after the search ended. However, this was not the case during periods of real panic and fear. When rumors were heard that the flying company was going to conduct searches, by surprise of course, all the usual draft-dodgers, including local fellows, would go down to the basement. But in the town were also draft-dodgers who were not of the Jewish faith, and they knew exactly what was going on in the rabbi's home. It happened that one of these said to himself, When the regiment comes, I'll acquire a beard and peyos (sidecurls), I'll sit in the rabbi's house and study the holy books tatli, mamli. (He was an expert at imitating the tune of studying gemarrah.) However, things didn't get that bad and he evidently found a more appropriate, safer place to hide than the rabbi's basement.
And this is the story of the basement:
Under the floor of the house was a large, spacious basement with a tiny window that barely let in some light. Entrance to this room was via a hole, barely the width of a person; the hole was covered by a small door that could be closed by hooks on the inside. It was difficult to discern this on the wooden floor. The draft-dodgers would descend into this basement when necessary, and often spent hours down there. The unwelcome guests would visit us from time to time. Sometimes things could be set right by under-the-table bribes. Other times, it would be heard that the unwelcome guests on their way were honest souls who could not be bribed, and panic and fear would grip the entire town. The town elders would then turn to the rabbi with entreaties and also severe warnings not to risk himself, and that the situation had become intolerable. But their words didn't sink in. In moments of danger the rabbi became a figure of courage and valor, with no signs of fear or panic on his face. Thanks to these characteristics, he was often able to save the situation. Only after danger passed could we see how those frantic days had affected him and his wife with the pure soul, the righteous Feiginyu3 zl. She, too, was partner to the great enterprise of saving lives, with the splendor of courage and the glory of benevolence. After each search episode, both of them would become sick and lie in bed for days or weeks.I will tell the story of such a search in greater detail, a search which I personally witnessed: The rabbi ztzl turned to my father a number of times and said that I should come under his protection in his basement, because I also was subject to the draft. This is what he said: After all, there is no room in your house to hide him and I know that he, your son, is a learned young fellow. Let him come to me, to sit in the Beit Midrash and study the Torah which will protect and save him from all evil. Do you think I would turn away a member of this town when I also house those who come from afar?
And I would rather be captured and sent to the front, than be one of those who endanger the life of such a dear, holy man. I did not accept his invitation and instead remained inside my house without going outside at all, but also without hiding anywhere since there was no appropriate place in our apartment. Luckily, the angel of destruction always skipped our apartment.
But once they paid a very early visit on a Friday morning, and the cry engulfed the town: the flying battalion has paid a surprise visit! According to what we were told, the soldiers were cruel; they would not have mercy on us and money would have no effect either. I was dragged by my father and the owner of our apartment to the rabbi's basement. I suffered much anguish over this, and pangs of conscience. But together with remorse, I felt a pang of great satisfaction at seeing the rabbi's glory in his act of rescue. The elevated emotion that engulfed me was similar to those moments in which I witnessed the glories of creation.
When I was led to the basement, all the others were already inside. Before I managed to make my way in the darkness, a horrified voice cried out: Open! Save me!
This was a young fellow whose hiding-place was uncovered, and he fell into the hands of the searchers. Somehow he succeeded in evading them and escaped, but his pursuers evidently noticed that he disappeared into the rabbi's house, and ran after him. The door to the basement was opened to the fellow who screamed in horror, but the hands of the fellow inside were shaking from panic and he simply could not close the hooks. It was a moment of pure terror; all the people present stopped breathing; everyone was sure that all was lost. They were certain that the rabbi would be arrested, the deserters would be revealed, the entire town would be disgraced and subject to the terror of pogroms. But the rabbi did not lose his composure for a moment. He stood on the cover of the breached basement and the hem of his wide cloak covered the opening. After joint efforts from inside, the secret door was finally locked. On that spot, the rabbi calmly greeted the trackers; in his hand was the set of keys to the many rooms in his house.
The head of the trackers asked if there were draft-dodgers in the house; the rabbi answered in the negative. When asked if he was willing to swear to that fact, the rabbi shook his head in the affirmative. He held the head of the group on his arm and said, Come with me! See, all the keys are in my hand, I'll open all the doors and you can search to your heart's content.
The trackers parted from him in friendship and said farewell.
The rabbi still had not calmed down from the frenzy and panic which left their mark on him, and already he was knocking on the basement door: He encouraged us and told us the good news, that the danger had passed. Almost every few minutes he would knock on the door of the basement to tell us which direction the trackers went and in which house they were found. A bit later he brought cakes to us in the basement, tea with milk. For lunch he brought us the traditional Friday cooked dish and challot. He brought it all to us with his own hands, not via an emissary.
Not long after, the Czar was toppled from his throne. The rabbi assembled all the children and told them, My sons! Till now I gave you a hiding place, but now that the kingdom is a benevolent one, the Talmudic law of Dina d'malkhuta dina applies in other words, we must obey the government's dictates. Go home now, do your duty and serve in the army. May God guard you from all evil.
But the peace and quiet we so yearned for, lasted for only a brief period of time.
It happened not long after the rabbi's brave enterprise in saving young Jewish men: we began to suffer from pogroms and riots incited by Petlura4 and Sokolovsky's5 men and all kinds of gangs bearing different names. But they had one thing in common: their intentions were to plunder and murder the Jews.
The Angel of Death spread its wings on the town and darkened the lives of its inhabitants. This went on for about a year and a half; one gang would make its appearance and leave, then another would appear in its stead. Each group would rob, murder, and rape. A new group would appear to halt the robbery of the old group, then engage in the same acts themselves.
A Vaad Hatzala (Rescue Committee) was set up, headed by the rabbi, which started out by trying to raise money. This was difficult for the contributors, and for the fund raisers as well. The needs were great, and the ransom money was steep: for each gang we had to come up with clothes, boots, foodstuffs, gifts for the head of the gang and his deputy and a special gift for the entire gang. And everything had to come from the community, at a time when it was harder than ever to make a living and money was scarcely to be found. It was a crazy, frenzied period; business, work, and earning a livelihood all these barely existed. And anyone who had a bit of money on the side, watched over it like the apple of their eye for no one knew what the morrow would bring.
The members of the Rescue Committee were bowed down with work: They had to visit each house many times until they succeeded in reaching the money-quota that was imposed on the new local authorities. It was dangerous to walk the streets, and even more dangerous to meet the leaders of the new gang in town. Who knew if they were interested in ransom money, or just out for blood? Perhaps they would take out their wrath and fury on those who walked into the lion's den of their own volition, while the other townspeople made themselves scarce in their hiding places? The rabbi accompanied the community's emissaries every single time; he was the first to enter the lion's den, the first to come face to face with the invaders when no one knew how this meeting would end.
Indeed, it came to pass that one day, the plunderers attacked the rabbi and inflicted a deep wound in his head. Yet the rabbi continued on his way while his head bled, radiant from joy that he had been privileged to protect the other Jewish souls with his very body.
The rabbi led the community for many years as faithfully as the shepherd tends to his flock. Unfortunately, the typhus epidemic that erupted at the end of the war took his pure soul.
May his memory live on with us for all eternity.
by Chaim Rabin
Translated by Shulamit Berman
|Notes: Chaim Rabin, editor of this yizkor book, was born in Lanovits in 1910. Chaim's mother was Dina (Berensztejn), the eldest daughter of Edit and Kovka Berensztejn of Shumsk, and his father was Uziel Rabin, a native of Lanovits. During World War I (1914-1917) there was active fighting in Lanovits and the town was taken for a time by the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (By the end of the war the town had reverted to the Russian Empire.) Shumsk was outside the immediate area of military conflict. To protect their children, Dina and Uziel Rabin sent their two young sons to the large home of Dina's parents in Shumsk, and the children remained there with two of their Lanovits cousins for some time.
Rabbi Beirinyo was Yisroel Dov Ber Lerner, born in 1867. He died in 1919 during a typhus epidemic after he had been wounded in the head during a pogrom. Other descriptions of Rabbi Beirinyo in this book include Avraham Moshe Gejlichen's recollection beginning on page 151 and Rafael Sapir's remembrance beginning on page 188.
|“They have radiance that is like glory. Some say this is 'a kind of glory.' In my humble opinion, it is like Hod, one of the intermediate sefirot, meaning the lowest of those above and the highest of those below.”|
|Rabbi Chaim Vital|
I was 5 years old when I first saw him with my own eyes. Until then I only saw him through my mother's eyes when she described him. But now I saw him for myself simple in his greatness and great in his simplicity.
The year was 1916. Tidings of the Revolution had reached Shumsk. Now and then someone in the crowd on market day would hoist himself onto an upturned barrel or the back of a cart and exhort the people to strive for liberty, to throw off their yoke, to rid themselves of their fears. The strażniks (guards) would hide from the crowd, at least until after their fury was spent, lest they fall prey to their blows.
The following day the town would be quiet once again. Silence reigned in the main square that only yesterday served as the visionary stage for the collective power of the people, for the elevation of their souls and their brandished fists. All was calm apart from the clatter of wagon wheels and the hooves of horses that had been offered for sale but not purchased. Some Jews were somber, fearfully awaiting the approaching horror: Once again they must depend on He Who Dwells on High, with no guarantee that He would protect them. Perhaps He is holding them to account and they deserve the suffering which He brings down upon them. That's when the strażniks appeared in all their glory, with their mustachios and shiny buttons, wielding their authority. As usual they started with the Jews and ended with the Jews.
Here and there a door would crack open and a long-coated strażnik would slip out, hurrying as if he was late. He would rush to another door and then scurry back. The Jews to whom these doors belonged would accompany him to a neighbor's house as if they were going to a celebration or else as if they were about to bear witness against the neighbor. Agog with curiosity, we kids scurried after them and got tangled up between their feet. We wanted to see everything, not miss a single scene. When we didn't see anything we gazed at the adults, looking around in amazement: What's going on here? What's all the fuss about? The amazement was in itself fascinating. It spiced up the day and gladdened our childish hearts. But then something happened! Suddenly the order was given to keep right, right, right. To march out of the market square with its many stalls and keep going down the opposite lane that wound between Pini Shia Heshel's and the famous shop of Dovid Aharon, Zayde (Grandpa) Shneider, all the way to the rabbi's synagogue.
The Jews walked slowly and reluctantly while the gentiles, all three of them, looked as if they were receiving instructions from an unseen director, stroking their mustachios with one hand and grasping their swords with the other as if preparing for a catastrophe. The footsteps were slow and silent: If we're going to the rabbi we should decide ahead of time whether to go there or not, and better not hurry, because he does not sanction disobedience or infringement of his sanctity.
We kids scrambled between their faltering steps as their confidence failed. Something was about to happen
The entrance to the synagogue was at the side of the bathhouse, near the vestibule that extended from the rabbi's house. There was also another entrance, which was much closer to the market incline. One step led to the wooden boardwalk outside the vestibule. However, their unsteady feet kept going to the farther entrance, lest they encounter the rabbi and be singed by his wrath. The door was closed. The synagogue was shut during the day. But a melodious voice could be heard from within, filling the air with sweetness.
The strażniks stood transfixed. The Jews smirked to see these symbols of force overcome by the power of spiritual song. However, the strazniks soon recollected themselves, and their leader marched to the joint entrance of the synagogue and the rabbi's house. Rebbetzin Faygel, the rabbi's wife, peered through the window. Her double chin dropped to her chest and her squinty eyes reflected both fear and determination: Such a thing cannot be. The rabbi is in the synagogue. He is praying and his prayers will surely be answered.
We kids peeked out from between the legs of the adults, our eyes darting from the rebbetzin to the strażniks and back again. Why was she afraid? What were they planning to do? The head strażnik stood on the wooden threshold, which creaked under the weight of his heavy boots. Follow me, he barked, striding toward the door. It opened, but suddenly his way was blocked. In the doorway stood the rabbi, wrapped in his voluminous tallit (prayer shawl) with its gold embroidery. The rabbi stood face to face with the soldiers. His gentle, smiling eyes seemed to say: With a little repentance even you goyim (non-Jews) can be part of our community. But their eyes signaled unease and misgiving.
Your honor, we were informed that you are hiding Jewish fugitives and men trying to escape army labor. It is our duty to find them and bring them to trial for desertion. They will be severely punished. We will also be punished if we do not do this.The soldier spoke hesitantly and sighed when he finished.
We all waited expectantly to hear the rabbi's response. Did he understand what had been said? After all, he didn't understand a word of their language. The rabbi smiled. He hummed a tune that wafted gently upward, straight to the sky. The gentile was becoming angry. He was about to shove the rabbi out of the way, but the rabbi stood as if nailed in place, raising his eyes heavenward. In Yiddish he murmured: Lord of the universe, 23 young men are about to be conscripted and sent to Siberia where they will eat treif ( non-kosher food) and forget yiddishkeit (Jewish culture). Do not remain silent, O Lord of the universe.
The gentile did not move. He stood still. The rabbi's gesture with his tefillin (phylactery)-bound arm towards the house indicated: No problem. If you must search, go ahead. Please, I invite you to enter my home and the synagogue. It is your duty to search.
But in Yiddish he actually said: Listen, wife, go outside as soon as the unclean ones enter.
The rebbetzin went out while the soldiers entered.
They searched for a long time. They searched both the house and the synagogue. They searched in the Holy Ark, under the stove, between the benches, in the corridor, in the women's section but they found nothing. They left slowly, with Rabbi Beirinyo's eyes burning into them as they made their report: No Jewish deserters have been found.
My eyes remained glued to the rabbi. He remained completely still. He was nothing more than the hook on which hung his vast, embroidered tallit, the tallit that covered the opening under which huddled 23 draft-dodgers. He stood unmoving during the entire search because his tallit concealed the entrance to the cellar where they were hiding.
Indeed, with my own eyes I saw Rabbi Beirinyo. My mother's tales were nothing compared to what I saw that day. It was then I knew that our lives as Shumskers were illuminated by the light of people like him.
* * *
For a long time I attended the synagogue prayers merely as an outlet for my boundless mischief. But from time to time I would creep closer to the mizrach just to get a glimpse of him.
Yes, there he stood, a gentle smile on his face, frozen in place, as solid and immovable as a rock whose cracks are immutably etched, unchanging, and therein lies their greatness.
One year later, signs of the Revolution taking place in the depths of Russia began to be discerned in and around Shumsk.
First of all, the golden epaulettes were stripped from the strażniks who had imposed the law on us for so many years in the name of the Holy Tsar. They were the first to go after he stepped down and died. After that, anyone who wanted was free to take charge, anyone who wanted to overthrow authority for the good of the people. And so power passed from hand to hand, and the people did not know who would be the masters of their fate. For the Jews it was a time of great fear. From time to time armed gangs ruled the town, demanding contributions from the merchants, who were required to support them since apparently they were tasked with protecting the unarmed populace.
The first commander of the gangs was one Polkovnik, a Russian wearing mismatched boots, one of them worn out and dilapidated. The Jews heard that he was one of the original revolutionists, a Bolshevik. When the Revolution no longer suited him he decided to conquer part of Ukraine for the Revolutionary Russian Empire. He would arrive in Shumsk in the afternoon and make his way to Yossil the starosta (community elder), ordering him to round up five or six Jews charged with collecting the contribution money.
One day he didn't appear. Rumor had it that Irvin the shoemaker had killed him, tied a red band on his hat, and left Shumsk at the head of the gang, who realized that it was easier to share the Jews' money among themselves than to hand it over to the Party.
Thus Shumsk was exploited by those who changed their hatbands willy-nilly, according to rumor. If it was rumored that there were more reds in the metropolis, then there would be red hatbands. If white prevailed, then all hatbands were white They changed every two days, every day, and sometimes even twice in one day.
The time came when we Jews didn't want to give any more. Who are you to exploit peaceable townsfolk who want to keep their money? We will pay taxes to the proper authorities.
Serious trouble ensued. For the first time the theives wielded weapons to terrorize the populace. The Jews shuttered their shops and remained in their homes until the storm passed. But the terror continued. They threatened to loot every shop and home unless the Jews paid of their own free will, contributing to the people's army for the sake of the people.
In desperation, the Jews turned to Rabbi Beirinyo.
Faygel feared that the rabbi would be taken hostage and his life would be in danger. Why do you disturb the rabbi? she cried, His power, and yours, lies only in his prayers.
But the rabbi soothed her: Nu, the voice of the multitude is like the voice of the Almighty. If the people wish it, it is a sign that heaven, too, wills it.
Faygel was terrified. If they killed him, what would become of her? She was solitary, with no son to support her, nobody to succor her. What would become of her? She wept bitterly. The rabbi comforted her:
Nu, nu, what's the point of living if we do not sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our fellow Jews? What's the point of living if our lives are filled with fear?He promised to speak with the oppressors.
It was a Friday. Floors had been scrubbed in honor of the Sabbath. Little girls, their hair washed and freshly braided, were dressed in their Sabbath best. Holiness descended upon the town, letting people forget the toil and hardship of the week.
Suddenly the children, alarmed, scattered like a flock of chicks. They rushed home, wailing. As the streets emptied out, a cloud of dust appeared. A group of policemen on horseback made their way directly to the home of Yossil the starosta.
It is difficult for me to recollect all the pieces into one coherent narrative. But this I remember clearly:
Shutters opening with a creak, eyes peering nervously in the direction of the marketplace, near the stall of Teche Sheindles. The market was deathly quiet. All eyes were focused on the lane leading to the home of Rabbi Beirinyo. The rabbi approached, flanked by two men. One was my father and the other was Haim Wilskier. They were followed by Itzik Meir and Itzi Shechver. In the market square they stood face to face the rabbi and the soldier, one whose face was suffused with an ethereal, rosy glow, and the other whose pockmarked face was agitated.
You are the rabbi of this town? The leaders of your community know that they cannot play games with me. If I do not receive the money I need, I will lay everyone flat. Convince your Jews and save them.The rabbi did not understand a word. He hummed snatches of psalms under his breath before replying as follows:
Sir, take my life and let them go. Today is the Sabbath and we must sanctify it with prayers and wine. It is better to bring in the Sabbath early than to let it depart late. Let them go.His words were translated by Haim Wilskier, who softened them somewhat for the soldier.
It will be a black Sabbath for you if you don't pay. Your blood will be upon your heads. I want my money.Apparently the rabbi understood this without interpretation. He continued speaking:
The Sabbath is approaching. We do not speak of money on the Sabbath. The sun is setting. I can give you my life.As he spoke he came closer until they were almost touching. His eyes shone, smiling directly into the soldier's murderous eyes. The soldier flinched for a second but immediately recovered. He aimed a blow at the rabbi's head with the butt of his weapon. The two bodyguards couldn't protect the rabbi from the wrathful gentile. The rabbi absorbed the blows. His eyes were blinded by the blood streaming from his head. And yet he stood there, and by so doing he indicated that nobody should intervene, that his victory was assured, that this must not deteriorate into a battle.
And indeed, the rabbi was victorious.
The gang sympathized with the rabbi and scattered in haste.
Towels were moistened to staunch the rabbi's blood, so that he would not throw Faygel into a panic by arriving home bleeding. When he reached the synagogue, accompanied by his retinue, his face was scratched in places, but he was still smiling. The setting sun, heralding the Sabbath, cast its rosy rays on Rabbi Beirinyo's extremely pale face.
Rabbi Beirinyo emerged victorious. I remember it to this day.
by Pesach Lerner
Translated by Rachel Karni
|Translator's notes: Pesach Lerner, the author of this chapter, was born in Shumsk in 1901 to Malka (Roichman) and Moshe Lerner. In 1921 he emigrated to Eretz Yisrael among the first group of Shumskers to do so, stopping on the way in Vienna, where he visited the grave of Theodore Herzl (photograph on page 144). Pesach Lerner married Esther Sudman, also from Shumsk, and was instrumental in the immigration of her parents, Yisrael and Sara Sudman, and many other members of their families, in effect saving their lives. After World War II many of the new immigrants from Shumsk found a warm welcome in the Lerner-Sudman home in Tel Aviv. Pesach Lerner founded the Organization of Shumskers in Israel and stood at its head for many years. He played a major role in the publication of the Shumsk Yizkor Book. Biographical information about Dr. Herman Jakobson and his family appears in the endnotes to this chapter.|
Generations of people from all strata of the town were cared for by Dr. Jakobson, of blessed memory. He received expressions of gratitude from people of different religions and ethnic groups on more than one occasion for having saved their lives. People in all of the villages of the area surrounding Shumsk came to him to receive the benefit of his medical expertise.
I came to know him when he was already elderly and had grown hard of hearing. My parents, who had known him for much longer, said that he had not changed: straight-backed, heavy of gait and hard of hearing. But when a patient entered, he perked up his ears and diagnosed every twinge of his heart. No irregular heart rhythm remained unnoticed and this without equipment.
In the course of the many years that he served as the only doctor in Shumsk and the surrounding area thousands passed through his devoted hands. He knew them all each of them with their weaknesses and their unique human qualities. He did not speak much. He was reserved and immersed in his work and in his inner thoughts, like a person who is weighed down by something and does not engage in idle banter or lighthearted conversation.
As a person who was highly educated, he differed from most of the members of the Jewish community of Shumsk. But he did not belong to the intelligentsia of the town and he did not emit an aura of superiority to others as they did.
It was said that he had been an outstanding yeshiva student in his youth and had been ordained as a rabbi and then left the world of the yeshivas. How he came to medicine was not known. Evidently his extraordinary talent stood him in good stead and he was able to bridge the gap of years that he had spent in the yeshiva in the course of obtaining his medical education. Because of his yeshiva studies he was not in awe of the level of Talmudic erudition of some of his esteemed patients, who tried to impress him with their expertise in Talmud. He acted as if the words of the patient were not directed to him personally and gave the impression that he had no time for anything else but the physical and emotional health of the patient he was caring for at that moment. The human being, and his life, were his overriding concerns. If each one would think this way, and respect the rights of everyone else to live, there would be no more wars and mankind would be saved.
But this was not in his hands.
War1 broke out, and in addition to the terrible suffering this caused there was the suffering from an epidemic, which followed the course of the war as ravens follow a plow. I was a teenager in the town when the typhus epidemic broke out2. People fell ill, one after another. Those who had not yet fallen ill walked about like shadows from lack of sleep, exhaustion and worry.
I volunteered together with many other young people in the town in an organization called Bikur Cholim whose purpose was to care for sick people during the night.
The epidemic struck every home in the town and resulted in quite a few deaths. Despair struck everyone. With every person who fell ill, the world of the members of his household and that of his relatives fell apart. People did not leave their homes, and the usual, traditional social life we had had in our town ceased. Those who had fallen ill were kept in isolation, and those who had not yet fallen ill kept their distance from others.
The only one who went from bed to bed, without fear or weariness, was Dr. Jakobson. In spite of his age and his poor health he visited each sick person at any hour of the day or night. In this time of despair Dr. Jakobson was a beacon of hope and succor. Everyone believed that his touch would bring salvation.
On rainy cold nights, during freezing stormy days, he would wend his way in the heavy mud and reach each and every corner of the town.
On dark nights his young son Ilya would accompany him. Ilya would walk ahead of his father, holding a kerosene lamp or a candle and light the way. This went on for many, many nights.
With us, the young volunteers, he behaved as if he were our friend. He would give us instructions for the care of the patients and rely on us or at least he made us believe that he was relying on us.
One night I had been appointed by him to stay with two patients who were lying in the same room. It was already very late. I noticed that one of the patients was losing consciousness; his face had changed and he was exhibiting very worrisome signs. I knew that the hour was very late and Dr. Jakobson had just left an hour earlier for his home. But the responsibility for the matter spurred me on and I reached him, running all the way.
He was already sleeping. I awoke him and entered his office. He listened to what I told him, exuding both worry and trust in my words. He gave me a prescription with a special order to the pharmacist, and told me to remain awake all the night, to watch the patient carefully and to sit next to him. He told me to continually change the ice bags on his head and if I did this he calmed me the crisis would pass and the patient would recover.
Four hours later after a short night of rest Dr. Jakobson was at the home of this patient in order to hear about his condition.
When he found that the patient had improved, a rare smile spread over his face, it seems to me the first time I had ever seen him smile. He shook my hand and thanked me warmly and said, We have saved another Jewish soul.
I will never forget Dr. Jakobson3, a great Jew and a profound human being.
Herman Jakobson was born in 1882. He studied at a yeshiva and was ordained as a rabbi but then decided to study medicine. He completed his medical studies in Riga in 1911 and worked as a physician in Shumsk until his premature death in 1934. As a young man he had joined the Narodniks, a political group in Russia that believed in living close to nature and serving the ordinary man and the peasants. This belief is what motivated him to go to Shumsk and to remain there. As this chapter attests, he was beloved and deeply respected by the people of Shumsk.
Dr. Jakobson and his family resided in a very large apartment in Shumsk. His home served as a meeting place for the intellectuals of the town. After his death, his widow, Esther, who was not well, moved to Rovno to live with her daughter Dora and son-in-law. When the Germans entered Shumsk the Jakobson home in Shumsk was confiscated to serve as the Gestapo headquarters (see "This is How It Began" by Wolf Berenstejn on page 21 of this yizkor book).
Dr. Jakobson's wife was killed in the massacre of the Rovno Jewish community in 1942. His oldest son, Yoseph (also known as Iozo), who had studied medicine, perished in a typhus epidemic in Buchara, where he had fled from his home in Rovno. Yoseph's wife and daughter survived the war and went to Israel. Chuna, the husband of his daughter Dora, was murdered in a mass grave in Kostopol, where the Jews of Rovno who were arrested in the third German action in Rovno were deported. Dora and her daughter, who had fled to the Soviet Union at the outset of the German invasion of the area, survived the war and went to Israel.
Dr. Jakobson's daughter Raya, who was a trained nurse, lived in Warsaw. She worked as a nurse in the Warsaw Ghetto and at the end of the uprising in the ghetto escaped to the Aryan side, was hidden by an acquaintance and succeeded in obtaining false papers with an Aryan identity. She lived and worked as a nurse in Warsaw in this guise until the end of the war and later emigrated to Israel.
Ilya, Dr. Jakobson's youngest son (who is referred to in this chapter), was an engineer in 1940, living with his wife and daughter in Lvov. He had a senior position in a large industrial firm. Shortly after the Russians entered the area as a result of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the Russians demanded that Ilya serve as an informer. He was tortured in an NKVD (Russian secret police) interrogation and died shortly thereafter. His wife, Matia, and 4-year-old daughter, Irma Hermina, perished in the Nazi massacre of the Jews of Lvov. Return
by Bella Tzoref
Translated by Sandy Bloom
He was what we called a morehmelamed (both these words should be pronounced with the accent on the nexttolast or penultimate syllable).1
He taught us everything. Anyone who wanted to give his children a more advanced education than that in the cheder (elementary school), yet wanted to cleave to tradition and not have others suspect him of apikorsus (heresy), would send his children to Zecharya Roichman or, as they called him, Zecharya Schreiber.2
He always rented a place to live and he had no apartment of his own. He didn't talk much and it was hard to get him to reveal personal details about himself. In fact, he tried to avoid any conversation about himself, I guess it just didn't interest him. However, I do remember that once I was with him when I was 12 years old and asked him how it happened that he married the woman who was his wife. For a moment he was silent, but when his amazement at my question subsided, he opened his mouth and started talking; the words streamed from his mouth, on and on. And the things he said in that monologue were very characteristic of that time period.
It turned out that his grandfather was born in Shumsk. Yet he, the grandson, lived for some inexplicable reason in Odessa. It is likely that his father had migrated to Odessa, the city of enlightenment, at some point in his life, so his son remained there too. There Zecharya was educated, there he studied, grew up and completed his education, which evidently was homebased and not in schools. It was only when he reached the age of army draft that they found that he was listed as a Shumsk resident with no permit to live in Odessa, thus deserving of a severe punishment.
After many efforts and much difficulty, Zecharya managed to be sent to Shumsk. The town tried to figure out how to save the fellow from the draft and then one of the town's influential leaders (named Akiva Shimons) suggested a plan: to marry Zecharya to a Shumsk young lady, who by coincidence was a relative of his. This way, two evil decrees could be averted simultaneously: The fellow could evade the draft and also avoid expulsion to some even more desolate place. Thus, the wedding took place.
So Zecharya began to put down roots in Shumsk. Since he had no profession, no money and no moneymaking talents, he began to teach children.
Within a short time, everyone liked the new fellow, respected him, and gave their children to him willingly. They especially liked the fact that Zecharya also taught Russian, which was a very useful language. He taught Tanach (Bible) and modern Hebrew.
Zecharya had no classroom of his own, so he would spend hours going from one home to another to teach. The students liked him because even though Zecharya himself was a very devout Jew, he was not strict with his charges. He told them jokes, his classes were high spirited, and he knew how to be lenient.
He opened up new vistas for the children when he talked to them. The children grasped that there were other worlds beyond Shumsk, worlds with different lifestyles and spheres of knowledge. When we were in his company, we rose to magical and enjoyable heights of imagination.
During the First World War period in 1914, Shumsk was under siege and most of all, its future was uncertain. The town was often cut off from its Jewish neighbors and disconnected from sources of livelihood. But Zecharya continued to teach, without taking money from his pupils. In exchange for his hours of work, he asked only for foodstuffs: flour, groats, salt, sugar, legumes and the like. When asked why he did this, he would launch into a long, tireless explanation for acting as he did, occasionally repeating himself. The following is an approximate summary of his beliefs:
The world is undergoing renewal, and changing its ways. Communism will change human relationships for the better. Money will be wiped out and instead, humanity will return to barter: Each person will receive what he needs from his compatriots, and the reverse. Each person will be forced to create his own necessities/consumer goods, which he will use as payment for his needs. Hoarding will not be possible. There will be no accumulation of capital. People will not know what the day will bring, what will happen on the morrow. The result? The world will be full of hard work and creativity; there will be no class distinctions between those who accumulate and hoard assets and those who don't; human beings will be delivered from wars, etc. etc.
He explained that he formulated this view as a proposed rectification of communist ideology, and which he personally sent to Leib Trotsky, member of our own faith, one of ours. The hope was that Trotsky would accept this proposal for tikun olam (repairing the world) by equality, based on Jewish foundations of righteousness.
The letter never attained its goal. Communism did not redeem humanity according the dictates of Reb Zecharya Schreiber. But to the Shumsk residents, sunk in their small world of small, binding conventions, his words proclaimed everything could be different and encouraged people to think. The youths thought of alternatives, though not exactly in this direction. To the young people, Zecharya's words and theories gave them license to think differently, as well.
In later years, Reb Zecharya lived near us in rented rooms, and would shore up his meager livelihood by giving lessons in the villages in our area to children in Jewish families living among nonJews.
The years were 19171918, terrible years when bloodthirsty Petlura's gangs3 roamed the villages. Mortal danger hovered above any Jew who they happened to encounter on the roads. The only one who was not afraid was Zecharya. He alone went back and forth to the villages, forced to do so for his meager livelihood even though this put him in very dangerous positions. Everyone warned him, again and again.
But Reb Zecharya did not understand them. Why should he worry why would anyone want to harm him? Why?
We will never know if Reb Zecharya was, indeed, terrorized before his death. But one Shabbat morning, a bright summer day, a widestepping nonJew appeared alone on the empty streets of the Jewish village, and asked for the rabbi's house. Where is the rabbi? I have a pressing matter for him.
At first the Jews did not allow him to see the rabbi, Rabbi Beirinyo. Perhaps, they thought, he was sent by the Petlura gang to extort money. But he told them that a Jew had been killed in the village and, since Judaism was the victim's faith, he wanted to inform the rabbi so that the victim could be buried properly.
Indeed, the day after Shabbat they went to the village and the slain Jew was none other than Reb Zecharya Schreiber. They found him wrapped up in his tallit, stretched out on his stomach, covered with blood. Meanwhile, the blood had congealed around the gaunt body.
The nonJews said the following about Zecharya's last moments:
The Jew was holy and as such, we walked with him. We wanted to save his life, that he should not die. We went to him, we warned him, we said, ‘We take responsibility for [the nonJewish] members of our village. No one of ours will harm you, but what can we do: Demons and foreigners frequent our village, and these want only to kill. From us, they will take our bread, they will slaughter our cows, but from the Jew they will be satisfied with nothing else but life itself.’
But Reb Zecharya did not believe us: He covered himself in a tallit, stood for hours in prayer, and when the Petlura people came, those robbers who came from the outside, he went to them and explained: ‘Most important of all is the human soul,’ and ‘Human life is holy and there is no greater pleasure than maintaining human life.’ He explained to them other, similar ideas.
They listened to him attentively. We calmed down; we thought, perhaps they will let him live. And I walked home, continued the nonJew, bearer of the news. At home I told my wife, my family, of the magical influence of the holy man, of his great words. But after a short time I heard about twothree, maybe four, shots ring out. And my heart told me, that they killed him.
I was afraid to return to the house where the holy man lived. But something pulled me there. I thought, perhaps he's still alive, perhaps I can still save him.
I found him there lying, dead, wrapped up in a bloodstained tallit, lifeless. The unfortunate soul had died as a holy man.
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