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Personalities, Houses, Images


[Page 88]

Rabbi Shmuel, the Son of Rabbi Chaim

by K. P-R

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

Edited by Philip Shapiro

Rabbi Shmuel, the son of Rabbi Chaim, was the Av Beit Din[1] in Olkeniki in the second half of the Eighteenth Century. He was one of the famous students of Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Shik, Av Beit Din, and a third generation to the grandchildren of the great Yom Tov Yosef Lipman Heller.

Rabbi Shmuel left Olkeniki to become a rabbi and a posek[2] at the holy congregation of Minsk. When his wife died, he married the daughter of the famous teacher, Rabbi Israel, Av Beit Din of the holy congregation of Minsk. He settled in Minsk, became the head of a yeshiva, and died there at a young age of forty-eight. His biographers say that he was humble and very modest, and that he wanted to do justice with excessive love and great admiration. He was smart with a very keen mind. He took a strict approach in interpreting the (Shas[3] and Poskim,[4] and with his sharpness of mind he succeeded to untangle the hidden unclear issues. Those who heard his chidushim (innovations), one from another, would relate them to our Rabbi HaGra.[5] He often negotiated with the writer of “Marot HaTzovot VeHagudat Ezov.” In the city of Vilna, he used to discuss matters of Jewish law with the Ge'onim [great legal scholars], such as our Rabbi and Teacher Shaul Katzenellenbogen; our Rabbi and Teacher Avraham Avli; and our Rabbi and Teacher Avraham Danzig. Many of the things he wrote remain in handwritten form, such as his book “Ya'ir Kano,” which mentions an article discussing the laws of Shabbat from the Shulchan Aruch. He also left a large treatise on the Torah, a treatise on the Mishnah, many chidushim (innovations) on the Shas, and questions and answers.

(According to the sources)


Rabbi Yaakov Ben Shmariahu HaCohen Levin

He was born in 5607 and is a great-grandson and grandson of HaGa'on, of blessed memory, who wrote “Seder HaDorot” (the Order of the Generations). He studied in the Volozhin Yeshiva.[6] He received his qualification to teach from the Ga'on HaNaziv and the Ga'on HaRias, of blessed memory, of Kovna, and the Ga'on Rabbi Mordechai Meltzer. In the year 5634 [1873-1874] he was appointed to serve as the Rabbi of Olkeniki. When he arrived in Olkeniki he brought with him a number of volumes of Jewish law, including the volume of religious questions and answers entitled, “Si'ach Ya'akov” (Ya'akov's discourse) (According to the encyclopedia).


The Rabbi's House

The “rabbi's house” was located at a crossroad on the slope of a hill, in front of the synagogue and the Beit Midrash. In the winter, when children would slide their sleds down the hill, they needed to take care not to slide their sleds straight into the rabbi's old house. Many times, however, they were not agile enough and their sleds would fly with full momentum into the corridor of the rabbi's house, which was the place where they used to sell the yeast. It should be noted that no complaint was ever heard from the rabbi or his household. – “Children, be careful not to catch a cold!” – this fatherly advice was always said by the late old rabbi. And when we grew up, we were especially attached to this house. As yeshiva students, we held the holiday parties at the rabbi's house twice a year, on the last day of Pesach and on Simchat Torah. These holiday parties at the rabbi's house earned a reputation in the town and the surrounding area.

The period between the emigration of the old rabbi, the Gaon Rabbi Ya'akov Levin, to Israel, and the appointment of a new rabbi (the last rabbi, Rabbi A. A. Waldshan), left a strong impression on the town, because the appointment of a rabbi was an important thing in those days. Dozens of candidates offered their candidacy, and it was not easy to decide which one of the three finalist candidates should be chosen. And when one of the candidates was chosen, his opponents did not accept it. They turned to the great of the generation, HaGaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky,[7] of blessed memory, in Vilna and appealed the election. So, the town looked for another candidate who could compete with the above-mentioned [chosen] candidate and could debate him at the house of HaGaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, of blessed memory.


The Last Rabbi of Olkeniki

Rabbi Hagaon Rabbi Avraham Aharon Waldshan, may God avenge him, who was born in Shereshov[8] and was its Posek, was the last rabbi of Olkeniki. He accompanied his flock on their last journey and inspired them with the faith of the holy religion in their last moments. He didn't let despair overtake them when they were confined in the barns in Jurzika[9] in Eishyshok the day before the slaughter. The “Great Confession” prayer[10] was recited together in the cattle market on Radun Street in Eishyshok by the rabbis of Olkeniki and Eishyshok, the great rabbis who were their sons-in-law, and the entire group of those who had been gathered. The prayer of confession raised the spirits of those who were present to a supreme spiritual level, to the point that their materialism disappeared, as they prepared in their thoughts and actions for the sanctification of God's name [martyrdom] in public.

Rabbi A. A. Waldshan, the last rabbi of Olkeniki, was great in Torah, an excellent preacher from the old school, and a famous teacher. He had studied at the Volozhin yeshiva with the Gaon Netziv of blessed memory and issued rulings in his court. He wrote many interpretations of and chidushim (innovations) for the understanding of Jewish law, many of which were published in the “Ha'Be'er”[11] magazine, which was published in Poland. He had many Torah chidushim (innovations) and questions and answers concerning the holy scriptures that were ready for printing. By nature, he was very diligent. He was a preacher and had spent many years in his hometown of Shereshov as a preacher and a posek. His various sayings had earned him a reputation as one of the famous preachers. Many talked about the question of Reb Shlomo Braz the wagoner, in his first visit in the town, and the rabbi's answer. Reb Shlomo Braz had asked the rabbi: “Rabbi, please tell us,

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Shereshov is a town that is several times larger than Olkeniki, so why did the Rabbi agree to relocate to a small town like Olkeniki?” The rabbi answered as follows: In order for someone to says the kiddush, the prayer to sanctify bread (challah), one must have a whole loaf of bread, even if it is a small one. If someone, by comparison, has a portion of a loaf of bread even if it is much larger than a whole loaf of bread, one does not make a kiddush on it. Shereshov is a town that is much larger than Olkeniki, but it is not complete, because another rabbi served there. Although Olkeniki is small, it is complete. Therefore, the law of kiddush required that he choose Olkeniki… During his tenure, there were many discussions and disputes regarding the acceptance of shochtim and bodkim [ritual slaughterers and examiners of meat]. After the death of Reb Feiva Ginzburg, the only shochet and bodek who had been loved by all, there was a dispute every year about the appointment of shochtim and bodkim. Two shochtim and bodkim were invited, one of whom was both a chazan (cantor) and a shochet and bodek. All the new shochtim and bodkim who were invited would not last long. There were also quarrels over the matters of the “korobka”[12] [kosher meat tax] and the relationship with the butchers, until they were forced, in accordance with the recommendations of the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer [Grodzinsky] of blessed memory, to bring two famous rabbis (Rabbi Mishkovski of Krynik and Rabbi Meir Karlitz of Vilna) to mediate and issue a verdict. In addition, Rabbi Waldshan was one of the most important rabbis that the yeshiva committee would send, in accordance with the regulations, from time to time, to preach in the nearby towns in order to elevate the Torah and to collect money. His son, Rabbi Yitzchak Waldshan (Shereshover), was known in the yeshiva world as one of the greatest leaders of the Musar movement.[13] They used to say of him that if someone wants to compete and reach the rank of Rabbi Israel Salanter, he will have to reach the rank of “Shereshover”… In his last years he served as one of the spiritual directors of the “Ohel Torah” yeshiva in Baranovich. He perished along with the students of the yeshiva during the war, in Shimlishok. One of his sons survived and lives in Israel (in Jerusalem). He is the only surviving scion of the Rabbi's family. The eldest son-in-law of Rabbi Waldshan, Rabbi Ya'akov Zeldin (from Mozyr, Russia[14]), was the spiritual director of “Beit Yosef” yeshiva in Lutsk. During the war he moved with the yeshiva to Vilna and was very active in the [Vilna] ghetto. His place of death is not known. His second son-in-law, Rabbi Chaim Berger (Paricher), who was great in Torah and fear of God, had studied in Vilna before the Holocaust at the kollel for married yeshiva students (Avrechim) of HaGaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, of blessed memory, and with the outbreak of the war, he remained in Olkeniki. He perished together with the Rabbi, in the great slaughter in Eishyshok.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. The Hebrew term “Av Beit Din” means the presiding judge of a rabbinical court. Return
  2. The Hebrew term “posek” refers to a legal scholar who gives opinions on matters of Jewish law for which there are no clear precedential decisions. Return
  3. Shas is the Hebrew acronym for the six volumes of the Mishnah, commentaries on the Torah. Return
  4. Poskim is the plural of the Hebrew term posek. In this context, the term presumably refers to legal decisions that have been issued by Jewish legal scholars. Return
  5. The great legal scholar, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797 was known as the Vilna Ga'on, and by the Hebrew acronym HaGra (“HaGaon Rabbenu Eliyahu – The sage, our rabbi, Elijah. Return
  6. The Vilna Ga'on did not have a yeshiva. In 1803, one his foremost students, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, established a yeshiva in Volozhin that was one of the leading yeshivas in the 19th Century. Return
  7. Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (1863 – 1940) was a pre-eminent Talmudic scholar and rabbinical authority in Vilna in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Return
  8. The town is also known as Szereszów (Polish) and Sharashova (Belarusian). Return
  9. This village, known as Juryzdyka (Polish) and Jurzdikai (Lithuanian), is one kilometer north of Eishyshok. Return
  10. The prayer, known as the Viduy, is recited in the final hours of one's life. Return
  11. The Hebrew term for “the Well.” Return
  12. The word “korobka,” refers to a tax imposed upon the purchase of consumption items, primarily kosher meat, that was used to pay the salaries of rabbis and other religious officials and to support educational and charitable activities in a Jewish community. Return
  13. The Hebrew term Musar (מוּסַר), is from the Book of Proverbs (1:2) and describes the education and self-discipline required to conduct oneself in a moral manner. Prior to the 19th Century, these religious standards of ethics were studied on an individual basis. Rabbi Israel ben Ze'ev Wolf Lipkin (1809-1863), who is known as Rabbi Israel Salanter, founded the modern Musar movement by developing ethical and spiritual paths to moral conduct. Return
  14. The town is Mazyr, which is in Belarus. Return

[Page 89]

Bnei Torah in the Last Generation

by S. P-R

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

Edited by Philip Shapiro


The Parush (someone who left his home to study Torah) Reb Ze'ev

For about fifteen years of my childhood and teenage years, I accompanied this strange and dear personality. He was like an animal that whose tall image stood before us with all of its innocence, simplicity, and cordiality. He would walk among us in the town like a large baby, with powerful muscles, a real strong man, without a blemish on his black clothes, who wore boots in both the summer and winter seasons.

I do not know whence he came to the town or whither he went afterwards. Legends were told about him. It was said that he had served in the Russian army as a “dragoon” (a horse-mounted soldier) and had lived a stormy and free private life. Suddenly, due to a spiritual personal crisis, he decided to retire from the materialist world and accept the burden of [the life required by the] Torah. So, he left his wife and family and settled in the Beit Midrash and studied Gemara in Olkeniki. It was said that his wife remained lonely in one of the towns of Lithuania - in Vilkomir [today, Ukmergė]. I remember that once a tall thin man who was shy and spoke rarely appeared in the Beit Midrash. It was said that he was the son of Reb Ze'ev, the Pharush.

For whole days, until late at night, Reb Ze'ev sat on a bench in front of a lecturn – a “stender,”[1] – which he had installed for his use. He sat among the common people, close to the door, to the left of the podium by the southern wall. In front of him ticked the pendulum of the large clock, as if it specifically counted the hours for Reb Ze'ev.

In those years he lived with Reb Aharon Kodesh, a rich Jew, who came from a nearby village, Darzhnik, settled in the town and was very successful in the wood trade and especially in a wine and liquor store. Reb Aharon Kodesh's life was not very lucky. His son had been killed in the First World War, and his wife and two older daughters had passed away, but his confidence and faith remained the same and his righteousness and charity did not cease. Reb Ze'ev was a member of his household, and on Saturdays he would eat at his table. During the rest of the week, he would eat in other houses of the town, as was the custom of the place at that time.

I remember, when Reb Ze'ev would take walks on cold fall days, with the hem of his long black garment rolled up, and he, a huge man, would skip and jump from stone to stone and plank to plank to cross the swampy mud on the way to his daily meal. In the afternoon he would doze on his bench in the Beit Midrash with his arm resting under his head. He was not great in the Torah; he had difficulties in understanding. Every section of the Gemara, every Mimra (saying), every Talmudic Shakla and Tariya (discussion), was very difficult to him. It seemed to me, as a little boy, that he was reading out loud and shouting the words because he did not understand them.

I felt sorry for him, for the giant, that I, the boy, had already grasped the points, and he was still repeating, moving his whole body, winking, growling, and mumbling, until he understood part of the issues. When he saw that I was bored beside him, he shared my sorrow, and would leave me for a while, and invite another boy from the Beit Midrash boys, and repeat his lesson the second, the third time, and so on. Sometimes he would use to sit a child in front of him just for the sake of sitting, so that he would have someone to look up to, and it would seem to him that he was learning with someone. Learning aloud, and doing it with someone, made it easier for him to grasp the issues.

When he spoke with people, he was quiet, slow, and moderate, and he never lifted his eyes to look in the face of a woman, even though he would come into the houses of the town to eat his daily meals and to buy books for the Beith Midrash's religious library.

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Our Beit Midrash had many bookcases [with holy books]. Most of the books, including the Shasim, Turim, Mishnayot, Ein Ya'akov, the “Rishonim” and “Acharonim” books, were tattered and torn as a result of their constant use by the students of the Shas, Ein Ya'akov, and Mishnayot societies, including young men who had studied there years ago, as well as the men from the “yeshiva k'tana” [the small yeshiva], who filled the Beit Midrash at all hours of the day and evening.

Reb Ze'ev could not bear to see the condition and the fate of the holy books,[2] which were severely worn from too much use, so he became a librarian, without even understanding the role he was filling. The means to [repair and] purchase [replacement] books were found in the usual way. Every Friday he would go from one house to another and collect funds for the repair of the old books and for the purchase of new books. In order to collect the money from Shalom the deaf, who lived outside the city near the barracks, he would walk for about half an hour, until he reached him to enable him to contribute his share toward the repair of the books. The old books were repaired by Aharon Yitzchak the bookbinder, who smelled of glue all day long. By the way - the bookbinder's wife had a perfume shop and she also had dried herbs (kraitacher) that were used for medicinal purposes -- it was a kind of pharmacy.

Like the pendulum of the clock, for many years he went back and forth, collecting funds, penny by penny, until he built bookshelves and filled them with valuable books, Shasim from the the Widow and Romm Brothers Publishing House [in Vilna], the “Rishonim” and “Acharonim” books, all in fancy bindings, arranged and organized, each in its place. He kept the keys to this precious treasure with him and not everyone was entitled to receive a book from him. Only those who knew how to handle them with excellent care, not to drip candle wax on them, and not to turn a page with a dirty hand – were deemed to deserve to receive a book.

I remember how happy he was when he ordered the stamp for the books from a man who knew how to do quality manual work - Idel Karpowitz (who lives nowadays in Israel). The stamp was made of whetstone, in the shape of a small boot. On the sole of the boot was engraved the sentence “The Rose Flower Company Olkeninki.”

How great was his joy, when he would stamp the new books that the wagoners brought him from Vilna, or when he received them before the Days of Awe[3] from “Nick the bookseller,” who would come to the town with his backpack and spread out books on the table in the Beit Midrash. How happy was I when I received the stamp from his delicate and smooth hand (I still feel the touch of his hand to this day) in order to use it to stamp the Great Shas of Vilna.

Years later, being in the big city, I heard about the courage and heroism he showed during the wars and during the riots between the Poles and the Lithuanians in the 'Twenties. When the Poles, the rioting soldiers, entered the town, they didn't pass by the Beit Midrash. Before entering the Beit Midrash, they shot through the windows to kill and frighten those inside. When they entered the Beit Midrash with their bayonets, they found Reb Ze'ev standing in his place wrapped in a tallit and studying. One of the rioters approached him and pointed his gun at his heart. Reb Ze'ev did not lose his temper, but grabbed the barrel of the rifle and raised the bayonet in front of the soldier, who recoiled at the sight of the strong man. The rioters left him. On Shabbat he was called up to the reading of the Torah, and in a quiet and restrained voice he recited the call and response blessing. One day, before I emigrated to Israel, I went to my hometown to say goodbye to everyone who was dear to me. I entered the Beit Midrash to “warm up a little” with my childhood memories and to say goodbye to Reb Ze'ev. And there, only the old clock was ticking, and the perpetual reddish candle was burning, but Reb Ze'ev's place and his stender were empty. I was told that one day he left the town and went to one of the small towns in Lithuania.


The Rabbi's Son-in-Law

The townspeople used to pronounce Reb Yosef Levin's name with respect and with some reservation, because he was the Rabbi's son-in-law and a Torah student. He was somewhat stooped over, probably from poring over the Gemara pages in his youth, but his eyes and the look on his face shone with their wisdom and insight. His face was covered with a black beard, which was not very tidy. He wore black clothes, which covered his broad and solid body.

He inherited the textile shop and the house near it from his father, Reb Shimon Moshe Levin, who was the father of five sons, all of whom were Torah students who were also engaged in trade. In the last generation “Yosef, the son of the Rabbi” (Yosl Dem Rav's) was part of the town's society. There was no activity in the town, whether public, social, or cultural, upon which he did not express an opinion, and his position had to be considered even if they had to fight against it.

Yosef Levin, [who was also known as] Yassel Olkeniker, one of the dearest people from Selvodka at the beginning of this century, belonged to the zealous ultra-Orthodox circles, which were closer to “Aguda” than to the “Mizrahi” political party, which officially did not exist in the town. It was mainly active in the Beit Midrash and in matters related to the Rabbi and rabbinate.

It seemed to me that after the old rabbi, his father-in-law, had emigrated to the Land of Israel, he wanted to be appointed to a position in the rabbinate, but inasmuch as he was the owner of a textile trading house, and perhaps because he was a strong-minded and zealous man, he could not be appointed to the rabbinate, although he deserved it.

In his ways, [which were] the ways of the yeshiva students, he fought against the modern schools, against the library, and against Zionism, even though knowledgeable people said that all of the good books from the library passed through him and were read by him. And he also knew by heart all of Bialik's important poems.[4] As a permanent resident of the town, he came three times a day to the synagogue. On weekdays he would sit on his father's place (“Stadt”), where he also studied and taught

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Rabbis in the Town


Rabbi Ya'akov Zeldin, may God avenge him, the son-in-law of the Rabbi
Rabbi Avraham Aharon Waldshan, may God avenge him, the last rabbi of the town
Rabbi Yitzchak Waldshan (Shereshover), may God avenge him, one of the leaders of the Yeshiva Beit Yosef in Navardok



The cover of Rabbi Avraham Mende Greenzweig's treatise

Rabbi Haim Berger and his wife Rivka,
the daughter of the Rabbi,
may God avenge them


Rabbi Yosef Levin,
the son-in-law of
Rabbi Ya'akov HaCohen,
may God avenge him

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the boys of the city Gemara, and at joyous events and holidays he sat among the people of the middle class. It was a wonder to me that he would not pray the piyyut on holidays and the Days of Awe with the whole congregation. He would not say most of the prayers from the Machzor, but instead he would open the Gemara and study it. When I grew up and learned about the conflict between the Chassidim and their opponents, I saw in him, in Reb Yosef, the son-in-law of the Rabbi, the clear type of person who with all of his might was an Opponent [of Chassidism]. For he was opposed not only to Chassidism and its religious practices but to everything that has no practical value in everyday life. According to his views, he was a kind of “religious nationalist,” who admired the history of his native land, its sages, yeshivas, and its glorious past. He was the man who devoted months of his time to researching the tombstones of the old cemetery. He made sure to build a fence around the cemetery, and how happy he was when he discovered that the year 5350 [1589 – 1590] was engraved on one of the tombstones. And when there was a danger that the authority, or someone else, will look for the Napoleon's paroches (covering of the holy ark), in the house of the gabbay[5] and there was a danger that they would take it, he took it to his house for safekeeping. The Jewish community's old administrative record book, from which I copied passages, was also in his house. His wife, the daughter of Rabbi Ya'akov ben Shmaryahu, died in her youth and left him a lovely daughter. The daughter was among the progressive Zionist youth and married Moshe Ozransky, who attended the Beit Midrash and was in the Zionist youth movement.

All I know about his last days is that after the fire of the town, with the arrival of the Nazis, he moved with his son-in-law and his family to the house of Zvi Polachek, together with the family of David Rybeck, who were expelled from their home.

In debates about escape and rescue, he would say that the Nazi snake would reach everywhere. And he went along with his family to the massacre and the grave.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. A stender is an item of furniture with a sloping top that can hold in place a book, papers, or documents that one is using for studying, praying, or public speaking. Return
  2. Under Jewish law, when religious books and other written materials with the name of God can no longer be read or used, they are usually buried with the dignity given to a deceased person. In this case, when the books that were pored over could no longer be read, the readers would lose the source of information that they and their successors would study. Return
  3. The term Days of Awe refer to the ten days between the Jewish New Year (Rosh HaShanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Return
  4. Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) was a leading Hebrew-language writer, poet, and Zionist proponent. Return
  5. A “gabbai,” also known as a “shamash,” is a sexton, a person responsible for ensuring that all of a synagogue services run smoothly. Return

[Page 92]

Reb Avraham Mende (Greenzweig)

by S. P-R

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

Edited by Philip Shapiro


The Parush (someone who left his home to study Torah) Reb Ze'ev

One of the most prominent figures in the town's last decades was undoubtedly Reb Avraham Mende. His influence on the religious life and the education of the youth and adults was great and decisive. My first meetings with him were when he visited my house and met with my father for “his business.”

In those days, when I was 10 years old, Reb Avraham Mende built the flour mill and grain crusher (“krupernia”) in the town, on the banks of the Marchenka River,[1] on the land of Moshe'l Becker. What motivated this Jew to build the mill and devote his time, energy, and money to it, is to this day beyond my understanding. The mill was a technical innovation in those days because it was powered by an oil-fired engine. The other mills in the town and its surroundings were powered by falling water or by machines powered by wood fuel.

Since my father was a mechanic and an expert miller, he would come to consult him on technical matters. When Avraham Mende would appear in the nearby street, or in our alley, wearing his black clothes, with his eyes lowered and looking through his tangled eyebrows, the women in the streets would go to the side of the road so as not to disturb him on his way with an unnecessary glance.

Of all of the visitors to our house - and there were many visitors to our house since my grandfather's “livelihood” was in the house – he alone would announce his arrival by knocking with his cane on the floor of the balcony out of fear of violating the rules of “seclusion” (Yichud).[2] I learned from him that one must knock on the door of someone else's property before entering the property.

My mother was well-educated, and loved the scholars so much that she would stand for many hours behind the window of our neighbor Reb Israel Ya'akov Bloch, the teacher, and listen to the flourish of his voice as he taught his lessons in the Talmud. The melody of his voice and the Gemara studying reminded her of her youth and of her father, Reb Shlomo, who died when she was a child, who was well-educated and taught Torah to the children in her native village of Panoshishak [Lithuanian: Panošiškės].

When Avraham Mende would appear near the house, my mother would tuck her hair under her kerchief and, with the appropriate respect, she would wait for his entrance and make a place for him to sit. He usually arranged his affairs standing up and speaking quickly and categorically. At the time he was a manufacturer, probably 40-50 years old, and was short and a very introspective person.

It seems to me that Reb Avraham Mende operated his factory - the flour mill and the crusher – only once. The reasons for not operating it remain obscure to this day. It was said in the town that he would not turn it on in the winter because the great cold froze the lubricating oils, which prevented the wheels from moving; and that he did not turn it on in the summer because of the “milvan,” the small insects that were in the flour and groats, which are forbidden to eat.

Others thought, however, that Reb Avraham Mende did not want to deny the livelihood of the other Jews who were owners of millstones and made a living by grinding buckwheat and barley groats.

The mill was deserted in this situation for several years, until he sold parts of it, and finally the entire building was dismantled and no trace of it remained.

In those days he lived in the attic of the Shamash of the synagogue, Reb Eliyahu Moshe Meirowitz, then he moved to the “Shtibel”, at the entrance to the Beit Midrash from the “Polish”, in front of the “Shtibel” of “Hevra Poalim” (workers' company).

It was during the time he managed his war against the reformed cheder in the years 1912-1913, or, as he used to call it in his language, the “dangerous cheder”, in which the language of teaching was Hebrew in Hebrew. According to his opinion, there was a danger that as a result of this education the children would go into a bad culture. He gathered all his power and influence and managed a holy war against the modern school and everything related to it. His influence was enormous, because he and his family practiced what he preached for (Na'he doresh, na'he mekayem).

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When he was young, he was the municipal preacher in the city of Lodz from where he returned to his hometown Olkeniki to spread his teachings and extreme views. Only his sons and his wife, from whom he separated, remained there. It was said in the town that his sons were manufacturers in the weaving profession.

In his war against the school, he was not picky about the means. He attacked the important people of the city, whose sons studied at the school, the Rabbi who did not prevent the disaster, the teachers and the children. From his position by the holy ark in the synagogue as a preacher and reprover, he moved the war to the tables of the students studying “Ein Ya'akov” and Mishnayot, and from there to the houses of the town. He fought for every child, especially the poor children, as he hoped that they will be the saviors. When he announced that he was opening a kind of yeshiva cheder and he would teach for free anyone who was interested, there gathered around him about 20 children who were the children of the same parents, whose influence on them was decisive. In this way he ensured the future of Judaism in the town.

I was not one of the children who were brought into the room of this zealot, and even though my parents at that time feared him they nonetheless did not tolerate his malice. His war was not over, because his faith was firm and complete. Rabbi Avraham Mende did not know that he himself was the most important factor in the existence of Judaism and the preservation of the sparks of Zionism in the town.

I remember one of the nights of Rosh Hashanah. The Beit Midrash was full of people. It was hot and stifling because candles were burning everywhere and so many people were breathing. The overwhelming feeling of holiness and the fear of the imminent Memorial Day and the Judgment Day, were palpable.[3] The supremacy of the soul was in every corner. On the right side, under the Chanukah lamp and along the wooden table upon which dozens of candles stood, Rabbi Avraham Mende was sitting, teaching and explaining the holiday prayers. The old men were sitting around him, their eyes glittering and their mouths open, pushed by those who stood over them, listening to his precious and wise words. The crowd of listeners kept growing until it formed circles around the table which were as a living partition between the surrounding outside world and the world of Rabbi Avraham Mende, who described the destruction of the Temple.

Here he reached to the prayer “and because of our sins we were exiled from our land… because of the hand that savaged your Temple.” And here he began to describe the beauty of the Temple, its wall and its gates and the secrets of its locks, the secrets of which were known only to the experts, the priests of the gates. With a thunderous and noisy voice, and with the movements of his hands and shoulders, he described how the gates opened by themselves when the Romans smeared them with pork fat. And finally he presented the dramatic moment when the priest in charge of the gates lifted up the keys, because they were no longer needed, and a hand that came down from Heaven took them… This was “the hand that savaged your Temple,” to take the keys and preserve them until the right time arrives…

And I, a ten-year-old boy, stood huddled among the people, with my whole body trembling and my eyes overflowing with tears for the destruction and the hand that came down from Heaven, because who knows how much longer we will have to wait…

This image was engraved in my memory forever, and I believe that on that Rosh Hashanah night I became a Zionist.

Several years passed, years of wars and riots in the town and the surrounding area. At that time, there was also an internal war going on at home between my parents regarding my future, specifically, whether I should be sent to the enlightened yeshiva in Lida of the Mizrachi leader, Rabbi Raines, as my father demanded, or I should be sent to an ordinary yeshiva, as my mother wanted.

My mother prevailed. Even though the teacher Zaslanski, who was one of the students at the courses in Grodna, invited my father to visit him and recommended me and the yeshiva in Lida, I was sent by my mother to the yeshiva in Eishyshok.

[However,] I didn't last more than a year in that yeshiva, and then returned to the town to be with Reb Avraham Mende. For several years I was his assistant. I helped him heat the pot, brought him water, and made his bed. His food in those days was mainly boiled or roasted potatoes, a slice of black bread, and a little soup, if it was sent to him by one of his admirers in the town. He then tried to explain to me the basics of his book “The Light of Judaism” that he had published. In those days I did not understand much of what was written in the book. He had other manuscripts that he wrote that were not published.

His attitude towards his students and me was fatherly and, despite his extreme fanaticism, and his loneliness and weakness, he knew how to touch the hearts of the little children with the pleasantness of his words and his self-confidence. He would often remind me that it was not possible, that I, as a descendant of the “Pis'chai Teshuvah” from Utyan [Lithuanian: Utena], that is Reb Avraham Eisenstadt,[4] who was one of the last interpreters of the Talmud and of the “Shulchan Aruch,”[5] might descend into a bad culture of the “Lerer'lach” and the “Shmed'nikim.” His heart did not prophesy to him that a few years later I would leave him, the Beit Midrash, and the town, and wander to the big city to study Torah and wisdom.

When I would come back from the city and enter the Beit Midrash, “to warm up a little” and spend time among the Torah students, he would avoid meeting me. However, after a few years he reconciled with me, and would receive me with respect and talk casually about daily matters.

I heard that at the end of his days he became ill and came to the “Mishmeret Cholim”[6] (the guardians of the sick) in Vilna and there, in a foreign country, without acquaintances and friends, far from his hometown and his admirers, he died in loneliness.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. In Lithuanian, this river is known as the Merkys. Return
  2. In general, Jewish law forbids a man and woman who are not married to each other to be alone together. Return
  3. The ten-day period from the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) are known as the Jewish High Holidays. It is believed that at the beginning of the ten-day period, a provisional determination is made of one's fate in the coming year, and that a final determination is “sealed” at conclusion of Yom Kippur. During the ten-day period, one is obliged not only to pray and repent of one's sins but must reconcile with anyone whom they may have offended during the previous year. Yom Kippur is also a day for remembering one's relatives who have passed away. Return
  4. Rabbi Abraham Tzvi Hirsch ben Jacob Eisenstadt of Bialystok (1812–1868) was the rabbi in Utena (then in the Kovna Gubernya, today, in Lithuania). He is best known by the title of his most important work, Pis'chai Teshuvah, an exhaustive compilation of the decisions of eminent rabbis on questions of Jewish law. Return
  5. The Shulchan Aruch (Hebrew for “Arranged Table”) is a volume of legal codes of Judaism. It was written by Joseph Karo in 1563 in Safed (today, in Israel). Return
  6. This was a Jewish medical center that provided care for the needy and disabled that at one time was funded by the “korobka,” that is, taxes paid for kosher meat. Return


[Page 94]

Rabbis and Yeshiva Members (Bnei Yeshiva)

by S. P-R

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

Edited by Philip Shapiro


Rabbi Tobi Rothberg, may God avenge him,
a child of the town, the rabbi from Lunna
Rabbi Shimon Shkop and Rabbi Tobi Rothberg
Summer 5692 [1932]
Yeshiva members in a summer camp
S. Shachor, may God avenge him
Yeshiva members in the pine forest, 1928


Translator's Footnote
  1. Lunna is adjacent to the village of Valia and is often referred to as Lunna-Valia. During the inter-war period the town was in Poland and Jews constituted about 60% of the total population of 2,522. Rabbi Rothberg was one of the community's leading figures. Since 1939 the town has been in western Belarus. Return

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The Gaon Rav,
Rabbi Avraham Mendel Greenzweig

by K. P-R

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

Edited by Philip Shapiro

There is no doubt that the late Rabbi Avraham Mendel, as he was called in the town, belonged to those who attended the Beit Midrash[1] frequently. He also lived in the corridor of the Beit Midrash, in a small room on the north side. I remember when I was still a child, it was my mitzvah [honorable obligation] to bring to him in his room the meal which my mother would prepare for him. (He himself would prepare everything in his own pot; he only handed the pot to someone to help him with the cooking). When I was privileged to be among his students, I had to write the innovations (chidushim) of his Torah, entire systems of Halacha and Drosh [an explanation of religious text] that he would prepare for printing. Although he was strange in his ways and also lived a life of asceticism, he had a great influence on all of the people of the town, both young and old. His love for the truth raised him above all. His words were words of wisdom, his witty and catchy sayings, and the truth for which he fought with all his courage, these were what gave him the strength to fight against many. The “Chofetz Chaim”[2] would bring him closer to him.

In his last years, when he moved to Eishyshok, his absence was felt in the town. His place in the Beit Midrash remained empty and no more was heard his pleasant and clear voice during the interval between Minchah and Ma'ariv[3] when he would study the Shas and Poskim.[4] His distinctive refrain of “Amen. Ye'he Shmaya raba” (“May His name be great, blessed forever and ever”) was gone. However, he was privileged to have received a Jewish burial, when his student Yitzhak Petluk, who served him in his last days, said the Kaddish prayer over his grave. The great old men of Israel praised him. He was the author of the book Or HaYahadut (The Light of Judaism), drash,[5] and innovations (chidushim) on the weekly parashot[6] in the [first book of the] Pentateuch, Genesis. He had been a substitute teacher and a judge in the holy community of Lodz in the time of the Gaon, the late rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Meizel.


Translator's Footnotes
  1. A beit midrash is a hall dedicated for Torah study. Although it is also used for prayer, it is distinct from a synagogue inasmuch as the hall can also be used for community purposes. Return
  2. In 1869, Rabbi Yisrael Meir ha-Kohen Kagan (1838 – 1933), a native of Zdzięcioł / Dzyatlava / Zhetl, established a yeshiva in nearby Radun (also known as Radin), which is about 18 kilometers (11 miles) south of Eishyshok (Lithuanian: Eišiškės). In his lifetime he published 21 books on Jewish law. The first, entitled, Sefer Chofetz Cha'im (The Book of the Pursuer of Life), was the first attempt to organize and clarify Jewish laws on the subject of slander. The book was very popular and thereafter the rabbi came to be known as “the Chofetz Chaim.” His other works included a comprehensive compilation of Jewish law known as the Mishnah Berurah. Return
  3. Minchah is term for the afternoon prayer service and Ma'ariv is the term for the evening prayer service. Return
  4. The term Shas is an acronym comprised of the initial letters of the Hebrew words Shishah Sedarim, the six volumes of the commentaries on the Bible known as the Talmud. Poskim refers to rulings that have been made to resolve religious questions where the written Jewish law and prior decisions of religious authorities are inconclusive. Well-respected scholars of Jewish law were said to be “proficient in shas and poskim.” Return
  5. Drash is the Hebrew term for hermeneutics, the science of understanding biblical laws by applying certain rules of interpretation. Return
  6. During the course of a year, Jewish congregations recite the entirety of the Five Books of Moses. The text is divided into 54 portions, and one or two portions are read each week. The Hebrew word for a portion is a parsha, the plural of which is parashot. Return

Rabbi Tobi Rothberg,
May God Avenge Him

by Rabbi Zalman Rothberg

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

Edited by Philip Shapiro

Our rabbi and teacher, the Gaon Rabbi Tobi Rothberg, of blessed memory, was born in Olkeniki around the year 5640 [1879-1880] to his father, who was known in the town as Rabbi Avraham the doctor, and his mother Feige. His father, like all those who were called doctors at the time, though they did not learn medicine in the universities, had a vast knowledge in the wisdom [science] of medicine, without this diminishing his piety and fear of God. That [image] remained in my memory from the picture that was hanging on the wall of the house. He was a Jew with a beard and a large yarmulka (kippa) covering his head, and his eyes expressed love and affection. This was perhaps the secret of the success of the doctors in their profession at that time, because they felt that theirs was holy work, as messengers of heaven, to do good and heal the people. It also affected the personal safety of the patient and the doctor together. From the figure of this doctor, one can get an idea of the essence and spiritual integrity of the towns in those times, when the whole process of life was based upon the purity of the Holy, without any loophole and mixing of secularism. Of course, the ambition of this doctor's life was also to guide his sons in the way of the Torah.

Rabbi Rothberg's son had great talents which were already evident in his youth. After his son reached [the age of] Bar Mitzvah, Rabbi Rothberg sent the son to the yeshiva in Radun where the “Chofetz Chaim,” of blessed memory, was the headmaster. The yeshiva had strict regulations. All of the young men, especially the new scholars, were required to sleep in the Beit Midrash and eat there the cooked food that a special messenger, who was called the treger,[1] would collect from the town's homeowners. The messenger would bring the food to the Beit Midrash. This arrangement [in which the students lived and ate in the Beit Midrash] had been established in order to educate and accustom the scholars to understand that “this is the way of the Torah.” Nonetheless, the “Chofetz Chaim,” of blessed memory, made an exception for the above-mentioned doctor's son after he realized that he was gifted in exalted virtues. He allowed the son to rent a room and stay in a hostel. My father and teacher, of blessed memory, used to tell me about the golden era of the Radun Yeshiva that existed in those days, and about the devotion of the soul that was felt by the scholars of the yeshiva at that time. After several years of studying with great dedication, the son transferred for a few years to the famous Slobodka Yeshiva.[2] In that yeshiva he continued to increase in the virtues of the Torah and piety, and when he reached his marriageable age, he married my mother and teacher, who became the Rebbitzin [the term for the wife of a rabbi] Rasha Mina, may she rest in peace. She was the daughter of the famous “meshulach” (messenger) of the “Chofetz Chaim,” of blessed memory, Rabbi Zvi Magid of Eishyshok, who for over forty years distributed the books of the “Chofetz Chaim” all over Russia. According to the instructions of the “Chofetz Chaim,” of blessed memory, Rabbi Zvi Magid had to preach and teach in every city, to inspire pure piety and to establish societies for the study of the books of [the Radun Yeshiva's headmaster, namely,] the Chofetz Chaim and the Mishnah Berurah.

When this messenger passed away, in the year 5689 [1928-1929], the “Chofetz Chaim” gave a eulogy at his grave in which he noted that his messenger had a significant role in the distribution of his books. Our rabbi and teacher of blessed memory was already known at that time as knowledgeable and well-versed in the Shas and Poskim. It was evident from his exalted virtues and pleasant manners with people that he possessed the distinct qualities of a rabbi and a leader in Israel. After his wedding, he returned again to his origins – to the Radun Yeshiva, and this time to the famous Kollel Kedoshim[3] that the “Chofetz Chaim” had established, as he saw in this type of study an approximation of the coming of the Redeemer of Justice. For seven years he studied in this kollel with many great men of Israel and [rabbis who became] famous heads of yeshivas. During this time, he himself became one of the distinguished scholars of the “Chofetz Chaim,” of blessed memory, until the “Chofetz Chaim” appointed him to be the head of the yeshiva in Eishyshok, which was re-founded there upon the initiative of the headmaster, the “Chofetz Chaim,” and was under his supervision. At the Eishyshok Yeshiva he began to issue his opinions [on Jewish law] and he became famous both as a yeshiva head and as a leader who took positions and worked with selfless devotion for the good of the general public and individuals. Especially then, in the years of the First World War, when hunger and shortages struck the towns, he was the head of this town's aid and rescue committee; at the same time, in his sermons and by his way of life, he inspired the people, and especially the younger generation, not to be carried away by the current atmosphere[4] and not to deviate from the path of the Torah and tradition.

During these war years the “Chofetz Chaim,” of blessed memory, moved with his yeshiva to the interior of Russia. This had a negative effect on the resources of the Eishyshok Yeshiva, which were greatly depleted. When he was contacted by the town of

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Lipnishuk[5] to accept the rabbinate there, he accepted the offer. These were days of emergency, during the time of the [Imperial] German occupation. Many of the Jewish residents suffered from hunger and scarcity. At that time, our rabbi and teacher, of blessed memory, devoted all his energy and strength to the establishment and strengthening of the town's residents, and became famous for this in the entire surrounding area until these actions were also reported by informers. After the Germans left, Lipnishuk was occupied by gangs of the Poles who imprisoned him and sentenced him to be shot to death in the middle of the market. Fear, panic, and darkness surrounded the inhabitants of the town when they learned this terrible news. The men were afraid to come out of their hiding places. Only a few women were seen on the streets. My mother and teacher, the rebbitzen, may she rest in peace, and we, the boys and girls, who were still small, followed her with cries and pleas to the officer and the Polish priest, but to no avail. However, at the last moment, when everything was already in place to carry out the horrific sentence and our rabbi and teacher, of blessed memory, began to prepare for his sanctification of God[6] in public, by reciting the Shema prayer [the declaration of faith in God] and prayer of confession and accepting the burden of the Kingdom of Heaven – a miracle happened, and from his great anxiety he fell to the ground powerless. This occurrence also affected the cruel Poles, and the officer gave an order to release him after he [the officer] received a large amount of money from the few women who devotedly stood still and did not give up in their attempts to effect a rescue.

A few years later, our rabbi and teacher was accepted as a rabbi and Av Beit Din (rabbinical judge) in the town of Lunna-Valia in the Grodno region. In the congratulatory letter sent by the “Chofetz Chaim,” of blessed memory, to the town, he described our rabbi and teacher of blessed memory, with the Hebrew phrase kadosh v'tahor (“holy and pure”).

In the town of Lunna, when he had free time, he devoted himself to his spiritual leadership and to dealing with public affairs work. He was in charge of all of the operations of the town and also some that were beyond its boundaries. He became one of the most active rabbis in the entire area, especially for the establishment of Torah centers. He was deeply attached to the Gaon Rabbi Shimon Shkop[7] of blessed memory, and his son-in-law, the Gaon Rabbi [Shraga] Fayvel Hindes, of blessed memory, the heads of the “Shaarei HaTorah” Yeshiva [also known as the Sha'ar HaTorah Yeshiva] in Grodno, and they included him in all of the matters of the yeshiva. He became one of its patrons, and together with the Gaon Rabbi Shimon[8], he went to the United States in the year 5689 [1928-1929] to save the yeshiva, which was suffering financial hardship. Until his last day, he was among its activists and supporters. He also maintained his ties to his parent's yeshiva in Radun. From time to time the management of the Radun Yeshiva would turn to him not only for help, but also for advice, clarifications, and decisions in all their matters when there were disagreements regarding the management of the yeshiva. Also, because of his knowledge of dinei Toros (the laws of Torah) and because of his brerot (clarity of analysis), his opinions were sought from all around in all matters of law and justice. Everyone treated him not only as a rabbi, but also as a lover of mankind, always ready to help others and open to see the truth. Also, in his passionate sermons, which were said from a heart full of piety, he would leave a strong impression. He would go from town to town to strengthen religion and the yeshivas.

Our house became a home for the sages, especially during the summer months, when great yeshiva leaders, rabbis, and yeshiva scholars would come to rest in our area, which was rich in forests along the Neman River. My mother and teacher, the rebbitzen, used to gather everyone with a beautiful welcome, and hardly a day went by without having a few guests, [and] sometimes a whole minyan,[9] in the house. Those who gathered, who were from among the greatest rabbis, would also devote their time to consultations and to make important decisions in all general matters.

During the terrible days of the Holocaust, he did not leave his people, and, as the survivors said, even in the ghettos and in the darkness, he did not stop strengthening and encouraging the broken of our people. In the days of Chanukah, the holiday of light, in the year 5703 [December 3-11, 1942], his shining light went out, as did the light of my mother and my teacher, who all her life was there, helping him in all of his acts of kindness and most of his deeds. Also, all of my sisters and brothers, and all of our dear family, together with all the residents of the city, perished at the hands of the damned murderers in the Auschwitz crematoriums.

By the mercy of heaven, he left a surviving remnant:[10] I, the author of this article, who, with God's mercy, was able to immigrate to our country [Israel] before the terrible Holocaust, and God allowed me, not by my virtue, but by the virtue of my ancestors, to head the “Beit Meir” Yeshiva in the “Chazon Ish” housing complex in Bnei Brak; my brother Reb Shaul, who is a merchant and factory owner in Tel Aviv; and my brother Rabbi David, who was the head of the “Chofetz Chaim” Yeshiva in Kfar Saba, and is now, temporarily, the director of one of the largest and most famous high schools in New York, “Beit Ya'akov.”


Translator's Footnotes
  1. The Yiddish word treger (טרעגער) means a porter – someone who carries things from one place to another. Return
  2. Slabodka is the Yiddish name for a settlement on the right bank of the Vilija / Neris River across from Kovna / Kaunas. In Lithuanian, the name of the settlement is Vilijampolė. The Slabodka Yeshiva was established in the second half of the 19th Century. Like the Radun Yeshiva, it was one of the leading “Lithuanian-model” rabbinical academies. Return
  3. The word “kollel” means a “gathering” and in this context a gathering of scholars. A kollel is an institute for full-time, advanced study of the Talmud and rabbinic literature. The students receive stipends and typically consists mostly of married men. The term “Kollel Kedoshim” used here means a “holy gathering of scholars.” Return
  4. In 1915, the Imperial German army forced the czarist army to retreat from Lithuania. The ensuing German occupation government drew heavily upon local resources. The November 11, 1918, Armistice required Germany to withdraw its forces from all of the territory that Germany had seized in the First World War. Within days of the signing of the Armistice the army of Bolshevik Russia invaded Lithuania. The armies of the new Lithuanian and Polish states expelled the Bolshevik forces but the Polish army then fought the Lithuanian army and took control of the Vilna region, including Olkeniki. The town remained in Poland during the inter-war period. Return
  5. Before the First World War, Lipnishuk (Yiddish:ליפנישאק ; Polish: Lipniszki; Belarusian: Ліпнішкі) was in the Lida district of the Vilna Gubernya. Between 1920 and 1939 it was in Poland. Return
  6. When a Jew is murdered because of his faith, it is said that such martyrdom sanctifies the name of God. Return
  7. Rabbi Shimon Yehuda Shkop (1860 – 1939) was a Talmudic scholar who had studied at the Mir and Volozhin yeshivas and then taught at the Telshe Yeshiva. There, he established a unique logical-legal approach to studying Jewish law which has come to be known as the “Telshe way of learning.” He later served as the head of the Sha'ar HaTorah Yeshiva in Grodno (1920-1939). Return
  8. The author here uses the acronym “הגר”ש” (“HaGR”SH”), which refers to a rabbi known as “the Gaon Rabbi Sh______.” It is assumed that the author was referring here to Rabbi Shimon Shkop. Return
  9. The Hebrew term minyan means the quorum of ten or more Jewish men over the age of 13 which is required for traditional Jewish public worship. Return
  10. The Hebrew term used here by the author is sh'arit plita (“the surviving remnant”), which refers to Holocaust survivors. Return

Long-Established Families in the Town

by Emma Dvortzen Farber

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

Edited by Philip Shapiro

My Grandfather's House

The house of my grandfather, the late Reb Yosef Dvortzen, was one of the last houses that stood on the border of the gentile neighborhoods, the meshchanes,[1] which were concentrated at the edges of the town. The house was large and spacious and extended along an entire avenue. In front was a garden, similar to the garden that the gentile neighbors had. In the middle of the garden grew a pear tree. In fact, the tree was my age, since my late father planted it on the day I was born. Even already about seventy years ago, my grandfather's house was considered one of the most beautiful and important houses in the town.

Grandfather was a timber merchant, a steadfast man and well involved with the people. Since he spent a lot of his time away from home, the family members at home were guided by the grace and spirit of my grandmother, the late Hannah. She was an educated and magnanimous woman. My grandmother knew the German and Russian languages very well. In this house, in a good and pleasant atmosphere, she raised and educated 9 children, [consisting of] 3 boys and 6 girls.

Grandmother had exalted virtues: She was charitable, concerned for the poor and sick, gave charity in secret, and tried to increase

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the donations made for the marriage doweries of poor brides. With the influence of grandmother's personal charm and grandfather's sharp mind, their home became a social and cultural center in the town decades ago. My grandmother's family had a genealogy in their possession which testified that her origin was from Western Europe, from the family of Rashi,[2] and there was a tradition in the family to study chapters of Rashi's writings every Sabbath. The boys and girls had to give up their games on the Sabbath and sit down and review the Five Books of Moses and Rashi's commentaries.

A second branch of her family included the well-known Alfred Dreyfus.[3] When his release became known in the town of Olkeniki, our family celebrated the event for a week, and grandfather went to Vilna and sent a telegram to Paris to congratulate Alfred.

My grandfather, the late Reb Yosef, was talented and wise. He was a successful and prominent merchant among the timber merchants in the Vilna region. The goal of his life was to give his children a basic and broad education. He was among the few in the town who about 60 years ago sent their children to Vilna to study in secondary and higher educational institutions. The boys' hearts were not drawn to the Torah learning.

Moshe, the eldest, became a merchant. The second, Nachum, became connected with the revolutionaries and caused the family a lot of trouble. He would attract the surrounding peasants with his pleasant speaking and his passion, and incite them against his merchant and “exploitative” father. Of course, the family did everything they could to send him abroad, to the United States.

My father, the late Reb Avraham Aizik, was sent to Vilna to study at a school, in order to prepare him for a teacher's institute, but my father was not interested in it and in the middle of the program he abandoned his studies. After arguing with my steadfast grandfather, my father left the town and wandered to a foreign city, his heart's desire – to Odessa. In Odessa, he became a clerk in the trading house of Chanania Braz, from the family of Prof. Yosef Klausner, a native of our town. Finally, he returned to the town of his birth and the timber trade, got married and started his family in the town.

When my grandfather failed to educate his sons to follow the path of Torah, he put all of his hope in his daughters. In this, he succeeded. The girls were diligent about their studies and, to make it easier for them, and for the girls to have a home, the family moved to Vilna. When the girls finished their studies in the gymnasiums, their parents sent them to high schools in Warsaw. [My] grandfather and grandmother left Vilna and went to live in the small town of Vasilishki,[4] where my grandfather purchased a factory for sawing wood. During the First World War, [my] grandfather's family moved to Russia, to distant Samara (now Kuibyshev)[5] on the Volga River. After the war, my grandfather and grandmother returned with their daughter, Dr. Rivka Dvortsen Mogilevski, to their homeland, the town of Olkeniki. [My] aunt opened an office for dental treatment, and [my] grandfather became involved in the life of the town and took an active part in its institutions. He was the gabbai[6] in the old synagogue that had been built at the end of the 18th Century by [my] grandmother's relatives.

My grandparents' house became the center for the town's Russian-speaking intellectuals. Again and again, they came to my wise and clever grandfather to consult on complicated questions, trade, and matters that were on the agenda in the town. [My] wise grandfather would find a special way to speak with each and every one, and he knew how to advise because his mind was clear until the day of his death.

In 1923 [my] noble grandmother died. The glory of the house disappeared. The daughter left the house and went to her husband in Moscow and [my] old grandfather remained alone in his big house, which previously had been crowded with his children and his visitors. Sorrow and sadness fell on my grandfather and his house. A relative moved to his house and took care of him in his old age. Only on summer days, when some of his children and grandchildren gathered for the summer holiday, would the house be filled with the sounds of jubilation and joy, as in the old days.

In the last summer of my grandfather's life, in 1928, while I was on vacation from the university, I, according to an inner impulse, stopped my vacation in Rodzishki[7] and came to my grandfather's house. I found my two aunts at his home with their children. I was impressed by his clarity of mind in the last days of his life. In those gloomy days, when death hovered at the doorstep of his house, he, this extremely old man, still attracted the educated people of the town with his wisdom and intelligence. For the “third meal” of the Sabbath,[8] the pharmacist Sternin, the dentist Mrs. Pep, Dr. Jacob Friedman, and others would come to his house to be around him and enjoy informal conversations with him. The director of the Polish school would also come to him, to talk to “the wise old man, who could hide 10 young people in his coat pocket.”

In those days he would often study Talmud and the Mishnah. At 3:00 o'clock in the morning he would light a candle and study the Torah. I spent two weeks with him, and when it was time for me to say goodbye and Reb Moshe Pakmonsky came to drive me to the train, my grandfather accompanied me to the end of the avenue and separated from me by saying: “My child, I will never see you again.”

After a while he died a painless death.

After his death, his neighbor and friend, the late Yaakov Shaskin, said to my late father [with regard to my grandfather]: “He was the last person who addressed me with the language 'you,' from now on I have no close friend like him.”

May his memory be blessed!


Translator's Footnotes
  1. The Russian term meshchane refers to a lower urban class, composed of, for example, semi-skilled workers, tradesmen, and shopkeepers. Return
  2. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040–1105), who is popularly known by the acronym Rashi, was a Medieval Jewish scholar who wrote comprehensive commentaries on the Five Books of Moses (the Pentateuch) and the Talmud. Return
  3. Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935) was a Jewish French army officer. In 1894 he was falsely accused of providing military secrets to the Germans. The accusation and ensuing trial were prompted considerable anti-Semitic propaganda and demonstrations. Dreyfus was convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island in French Guiana. The actual traitor was a non-Jewish French officer. Even when proof of Dreyfus' innocence was brought to the attention of French military intelligence, the information was suppressed. Eventually, the press learned of the cover-up and demanded justice. In 1899 the French president pardoned Dreyfus and in 1906 a military commission officially exonerated him. The “Dreyfus Affair” shocked European Jewry, who had assumed that they were accepted as equals in Western democracies. The outburst of virulent anti-Semitism convinced many that Jews should return to their ancient homeland – the Land of Israel. The “Dreyfus Affair” thus the catalyst for the 20th Century Zionist movement. Return
  4. Vasilishki is a village in the Shchuchin region of the Grodno Oblast. From 1795, it was in the Lida district of the Vilna Gubernya. From 1920 to 1939 it was in Poland. Since then it has been in Belarus. Return
  5. In 1935 Samara was renamed Kuibyshev to honor a Bolshevik leader, Valerian Kuibyshev. At the end of the Soviet era, in January 1991, the historical name of Samara was restored. Return
  6. A gabbai, also known as a shamash, is an individual who is responsible for various administrative activities in a beit midrash or synagogue. Return
  7. The town is also known as Rodishki and Родзішкі. Return
  8. In Jewish tradition, three meals are served on the Sabbath. The first is after sunset on Friday evening, the second is at midday, and the third and smallest meal, which is served near the end of the Sabbath, is known in Yiddish as the shalesh se'udes (the third meal”). Return

The First to Immigrate to the Land of Israel

by S.P-R

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

Edited by Philip Shapiro

The Braz family is one of the veteran and branched families in Petach Tikva. I was still a child, when the father of the family, the late Ze'ev Braz, a young and active man, would return from the Land of Israel and talk about it and everything in it.

I remember how his friends, the young homeowners and the scholars of the Beit Midrash, would gather around him, listening with rapture to his story about his route to the Land of Israel, the ports he passed through, the seas, the baron's officials,[1] and especially about the atmosphere and the way of life in the Land of Israel, about

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the trade and the “marantsan” (oranges), about the foods, about the schools and the synagogues, about the Arabs, and about the buds of the Hebrew state.

The house of Welvel Braz stood on a small hill, behind the karczma[2] (an inn). The [Braz] house was full of dust from the sacks of flour and full with the noise of the children. The father of the family was a flour merchant in the town, a Torah scholar with a prestigious genealogy. The well-known philanthropist Harry Fishel and his wife Sheina of the Braz family, donated the Holy Ark in the new Beit Midrash in the town of Petach Tikva.

The Braz families were among the veteran families in the town and originated, as mentioned, from the family of Reb Alexander Ziskind of Grodno. A second branch of the family was the Yosef Kloizner family. In 1905, the year of the riots in Russia, Reb Ze'ev Braz went to Israel for the first time. Then he visited it in 1908 and 1910. In 1911, he immigrated with his family, which included 10 people, including four girls and four boys, the youngest of whom was three years old. The motives for immigrating to the Land of Israel at that time were different. The most worthy of motives to mention were the aspiration to provide a Zionist education in Israel, and to forge a connection to the land of the ancestors.

The family's life was difficult in its first years in Israel and in Petach Tikva. They suffered from many failures and disappointments, climate difficulties, and difficulties in adapting to the new life. Over time, [however] the children grew up, the cultivation was established, and the father of the family finally succeeded in his hard work. The father of the family died at a very old age. Afterwards, his wife died. They left after their deaths a large family which was well established in the economic and social life of Petach Tikva.


The Veteran Activist in Public Affairs

For two generations Reb Chaim Cohen was a central figure in the town. His origin was from the Beit Midrash scholars. He maintained his passion to study Torah until his last day. His connection to the Beit Midrash, like that of all of the townspeople, was natural. His place, next to the Holy Ark in the corner,[3] was inherited from the Braz family.

He was of medium height, thin, and agile in his movements. His delicate face was adorned by a thin and short beard, which had white hair already in his middle years.

His speech was very quick and he was always busy with the public affairs. His house was in the center of the market, and part of it was used as a store and a warehouse for iron goods. Throughout his life, he served as the representative of the townspeople towards the authorities. Until the First World War, he was the starosta (town official).[4] He would register births [and] deaths and issue birth certificates to applicants. For decades he also managed the local bank, which had been founded in 1906. During the Holocaust, he was a member of the town's Jewish council, which tried in every possible way to prevent or postpone the disaster, but the results of the council's efforts were poor compared to the dimensions of the Holocaust. He walked with his townspeople to [the place that became] the mass grave in Eishyshok.


The Last Gabbai

Aaron Kadesh's house stood on the slope of the street that led to the bridge. It was a strange house, which one reached by climbing up stairs. Maybe that is why it attracted me when I was a small child. The house, the store, the warehouses, and the beer cellars formed a kind of maze, which extended over a large area. The residence itself was illuminated. By contrast, it was dark and cool in the rest of the buildings. I got to know the house from my meetings with members of the household and from the friendly relations of the parents, and, above all, I was affected by the tragedy that befell the house for many years.

The youngest son, who had been a classmate of mine at school, died at a young age. At the time, we did not understand the magnitude of the tragedy for the bereaved parents, and grief fell upon the house for years. The parents had not yet recovered from their disaster, and another of Job's travails was already waiting for them. Their eldest son, who had participated in the First World War, did not return home. The parents and family members of the boys who had gone to war were in a state of anxiety and anticipation for their boys' safety and they were stunned when they were notified by the authorities that “his traces are not known,” which caused heavy mourning in the town.

Sad looks accompanied the bereaved mother, who was tall and noble, and the bereaved father, when they went to the Beit Midrash on Shabbat and when they returned. The disasters that had fallen upon the house overwhelmed the gentle mother.

Years have passed. Of the three remaining daughters, the middle-aged daughter died and Reb Aharon Kadesh, who was an honest man, a steadfast merchant, humble and strict, accepted his fate and divided his time between the businesses that provided his livelihood – the timber trade and the wine warehouse – and the Beit Midrash, which was the center of life in the town. Here he served as the first gabbai and was one of the most important people in the town. He was loyal to the heritage of his ancestors, who preserved it even while they were in the nearby village of Darznik. Reb Aharon Kadesh had as his “commitment” to the Beit Midrash to donate wine for kiddush. Even in the years after he ceased to be the gabbai, he continued this “commitment.” But the destroyer had not had enough, and the second daughter, one of the noble daughters of the town, who was about to build her own house in the town, died without leaving behind children. Only one daughter, Beila, who left the town for Vilna, started a family. The old father stayed at home. His body was bent, the whiskers of his black beard had turned white, the sounds of his deep voice were muffled, and he, like a solid rock in the sea of troubles that surrounded him, continued his activities and his work, until the bitter and threatening day came. (A remnant of his family, a grandson and granddaughter, live in Israel).


Translator's Footnote
  1. Petach Tikvah was established in the Land of Israel during the period of Ottoman-Turkish control. The immigrants experienced a variety of problems, most of which were overcome when Baron Edmund de Rothschild, a wealthy French philanthropist, (a) provided funds for draining the swamps, and (b) temporarily took over the administration of the settlement. Return
  2. Karczma is the Polish word for an inn or tavern. In the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, local nobility would often give Jews leases to operate taverns, which could also provide a place of rest for travelers. Return
  3. The Talmud states that a Jew who is praying in the Diaspora should direct himself toward the Land of Israel. Since Europe is west of Israel, the holy ark (containing the Torah scrolls) in a prayer hall is placed near the eastern wall, and a seat near the eastern wall was one of great honor. Return
  4. The term starosta is based upon the Slavic word for senior. It generally refers to a person who have been given local governmental responsibilities. Return


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