by Shabtai (Shefsel) Axelrod
Translated Sara Mages
I first met the Shotek (the silent) as we called him in Chortkov, when I was a young boy.
It happened during the winter of 1918, or maybe 1919. The Shotek lived in a house near my parent's house. During those days, one losing army was retreating, and the victorious one was entering the city. One day, soldiers broke into the Shotek's apartment. I remember his frightened look when he entered our home. With his hands he asked if we could provide him with a place to sleep next to the stove. My mother fulfilled his wish and put a lamp next to his bed. I remember, that the Shotek did not sleep all night, but stood on his feet until first morning light, and quietly studied his Mishnah. Later on, he moved from his apartment to a place that was attached to the rabbi's Kloiz. From his room a passageway led to the apartment where Chaim the Poor (Chaim Binde) lived. Chaim earned his living making homemade vodka. At one time, a group of soldiers attacked Chaim the Poor demanding a drink. When he refused to obey their demand, they wanted to shoot him. At that moment, Chaim the Poor noticed that the door leading to the Shotek's room was opened. That door was always locked. He ran and hid in the Shotek's room, and was saved from a certain death. From that day forward, Chaim used to visit the Shotek in his room, taking care of all his needs, and most of all, he gave him food.
At the same period of time, I happened to be next the Shotek's door. The door was open, and he called me and asked me to bring him water. From that hour, and until the day he died, for maybe ten years, I took care of him and attended to all his needs.
Later on maybe a year later Chaim the Poor, myself, and a number of Jews, decided that it was time to find a new place for the Shotek to live. We found an appropriate place for him in the abandoned mansion of Chortkov's rabbi. Somehow we renovated two rooms. He lived there until his last days.
Who was the Shotek? From where did he come to Chortkov? My questions were never
answered. This is what I know. Ten years before the outbreak of World War I, he
appeared in the rabbi's room, and spent all of his days and nights in the
He set in a far corner, praying and studying, without saying a single word. In the evenings, he was invited by Chortkov's residence, to eat his evening meal at their table. At that period of time, many sat at the rabbi's court, and the Shotek never brought a lot of attention to himself. But in time, after he was known as the Shotek, many started to wonder who he was, and what was he all about. Many legends were strung around this strange person who stopped talking. Some claimed, that his father, whose name was Shimeon Bar Meir, was a soldier in Czar Nikoly's army. When he finished his twenty-five years of service, he was given a parcel of land, and with his wife's help he worked the land. One day, the two of them was working in the field when Russian farmers passed by. They approached the couple and said: Why are you working today? Don't you know that today is Yom Kippur? The Jew, who was uneducated, got scared, and hurried to town to see the rabbi. He laid in front of the rabbi, and wished for a quick death. The rabbi told him, that since he repented for his crime, a son will be born to him, and will bring him and his wife a lot of happiness. The couple was childless, but a year later a son was born to them. They called him Shimeon and he was the Shotek.
Here is another story about him. It was told, that he was buying and selling copper, and that he also melted copper. One day, after an argument with his wife, he cursed her and wished that she will be burned alive. So, one day, while he was melting copper, there was an explosion, and his wife was burned alive. The grieving husband hurried to the rabbi to tell him about the accident. It is told, that the rabbi said him, in an angry voice, that a mouth like his should be silenced.
In 1925 or 1926, a young man appeared in Chortkov introducing himself as the Shotek's son-in-law. But the Shotek refused to see him. I tried to get some information about the Shotek from the Yeshiva student, but I was not able to. The Shotek never answered any of my questions. He wrote all his requests on a piece of paper, but he refused to answer any of my questions about his life or his past.
His room was simply furnished with a table and a long bench. In the middle of the room stood a stove that was being fed with broken tree branches, and wood planks that were in large supply in the empty and half destroyed rooms. There was also an old cupboard, a shelf with a few books, and some food. There was not a place to sleep in the room. Most of the time he slept sitting, leaning on the table. He wore galoshes on his feet, and he had a grayish beard.
My meetings with him were very special. In the morning and at midday, he never allowed me to enter his room. In the evenings, after Ma'ariv prayers, I used to knock on his window, to let him know that I was there. Then I walked to his door, he opened it, maybe in the length of my little finger, stuck his head, looked around him, and then he grabbed my hand and pulled me inside. He asked me to sit on his bench, gave me a drink and a piece of cake. By the way, there was always a small bottle of liqueur and a cake in the Shotek's room, courtesy of a woman by the name of Steinberg. Later on, he gave me two pails and asked me to bring him water from a nearby well. When I came back with the water, he gave me a note and sent me to Yisrael's grocery store to buy him food. Sometimes I bought him bread and sometimes sugar. Rice and tea were given to him by Yisrael the grocer. He never ate meat. Sometimes, he sent me to Phalak's pharmacy to get him medicine that Phalak gave him free of charge. He was always praying by himself, only during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur he appeared for the blowing of the Shoffar
I remember, that once I asked a photographer to take a picture of the Shotek without him noticing it. But the Shotek realized what was happening, and when I got the picture, his face was covered with the scarf that was always wrapped around his neck. Even though he was interested in politics, and read the Yiddish newspapers that were published was purchased by at that time, he never allowed a reporter to get close to him. His food was purchased with donations that I collected from a number of homes. Around twelve Zehovim every week.
Every year, when the rabbi came to Chortkov from Vienna, together with his entourage, I used to bring the Shotek to see him. He used to stay with the rabbi for many hours, until midnight.
Many years passed. I stood all those days and long years on my guard, and took care of all the Shotek's needs. I remember that sometimes he asked me to come closer to him and showed me a special place in the Gemara, and encouraged me to study that special section. The Zohar (the book of Kabbalah) was always on his table, and most of the time it was open.
My most cherished experience was during Passover eve, when I stood outside the Shotek's window listening to him singing and reading the Hagadah. I was always accompanied by a number of Chortkov's young Yeshiva students, and together we listened to his pleasant deep voice.
I remember the night the Shotek died. As always, he asked me to bring him two pails of water. It was a cold winter night, and it was difficult for me to walk and bail the water. When I came back, he asked me to pour the water into a metal bathtub that stood in the corner of his room. Even though I was puzzled by his order, I've done what he had asked me to do, and filled the tub with water. He sent me out again, to bring more water, and when I came back he asked me to pour the water into the same tub, and then, he asked me to do the same for the third time, and again I filed the tub with water. Then he ordered me to sit and rest, and then, the strangest thing had happened. Not only that he poured a glass of liqueur for me, he also poured one for himself. It was the first time since I have met him that he has done it. We both drank, and then he looked at me and said the words Great Mitzvah' and shook my hand. When I proceeded to leave and go to the grocery store, he signaled with his hands that it was unnecessary to do so. Later on, he led me to the door, and said in a whispering voice depart in peace. When I asked him if I should come the next day, he did not reply.
The next day I knocked at his window, but he did not answer me. Since it had happened before I left. When my knock was not answered the next day, I called my father and a few other Jews. They broke the door, and found the Shotek laying dead in his shrouds and wrapped in his Talit. There was water around the Shotek's body; probably he purified himself before he died. I also remember that when the news of his death reached the city, Yeshayho Blander took a quick drawing of the Shotek's face.
All the city's residents, from the youngest to the oldest, participated in his funeral.
In 1952, I visited Chortkov and went to the cemetery to look for his gravestone. I was hoping that maybe it survived after the Holocaust.
I wrote these lines, me Yisrael Shabtai Axelrod, on May 1962 in
Mogoliv-Podolskei, Soviet Union
by Tzvi Geezler
Translated by Sara Mages
I wish to tell you here, about a number of Jews from the gallery of Chortkov's characters. Especially about one Jew, who was a regular worshiper at the Startin's Chassidic Kloiz, who observed all the Mitzvot easy and strict alike, and always set aside time for the study of the Torah.
He was a charming Jew, modest, poor and destitute. Nevertheless, he was a happy person, with a rich personality and soul. He always shared what little he had, and welcomed guests to his home.
His name was Reb Eliezer Vinkler, of blessed memory. He earned his living selling used clothing in a store that was located in his home. In addition, during the last years, he inspected the Erubin (a wire strung around the orthodox Jews neighborhood to enable them a free movement during Shabbat or holidays). For his work, he earned a monthly salary of 25 Zehovim from the community. And for that reason, our friend Meir Drock, crowned him with the name Telephone Minister. He was loyal to his work. Every Friday, he neglected his store and walked around town checking the wires, making sure that they were not torn. In other words, he was checking the Kashrot of the Erubin. Most of the time, he found torn wires and uprooted posts. Next to the cemetery lived a Gentile who hated Jews. So, in order to anger them, he purposely sabotaged the wires. In many occasions, Leizer Vinkler had to work long and hard to reconnect the wires, sometimes, until candle lighting time. But, he never showed the signs of his burden. He was always sitting in the synagogue, leaning over his studies. During breaks, he was always joking, and his special laughing smile never left his lips.
At Simchat Torah, he cheered the crowds and was the lead dancer. Next to him, and helping him, was RebYeshaya Phingold, the short, of blessed memory. The men from the Startin Kloiz, were a little heavy on their feet, but all the worshipers from the Vizniz Kloiz, were fast on the feet, full of energy, clapping their hands and dancing with great enthusiasm. The two, were always leading the crowds, singing to no end, encouraging the others to do the same. Joining them at the lead, was Chaim Grishpen (who was nicknamed Bidni).
On Saturdays, he never left the synagogue without taking a guest home. Another person, who always invited poor guests for a Shabbat meal, was Yakov Shefel, son-in-law of the teacher, Reb. Yehosua Efraim. Yakov Shefel, was a butcher from Kopzinzah. He was a pious Jew, and in his butcher shop near the train station, he sold back portions of meat to the Gentiles, but only the meat of Kosher cattle. He avoided selling Kosher meat to Jews, fearing that he might fail them. At that time, the thigh muscle at the back end of a cow was considered to be non-Kosher in Chortkov.
Yakov Shefel's brother studied with the genius rabbi, Rabbi Meir Erech, who was the chief rabbi of Bochech-Torna. He studied together with Reb. Livzi, son of Mordechai the slaughterer. Later on, he became a rabbi in one of the small towns in Western Galicia.
Yankele' Shefel dedicated himself to the Mitzvah of hospitality. Every Shabbat, he ran from synagogue to synagogue to collect the poor, making sure that each poor Jew will get his Shabbat meal. Since he lived far from the city center, he collected his troop and led them to the home of Reb. Eliezer Vinkeler. There was always more then enough food for all his guests. The day before, Reb. Yankele' collected food items that he requested in advance from a number of homes and brought them to Leizer's apartment. His guests were always well fed and left satisfied. Only after his guests were done with their Shabbat meal, Yankele' returned to his family's home at the other side of town, to sit at his own table and eat his Shabbat meal.
In the 1930s, a new tradition was established at the Kloiz of our rabbi of blessed memory. The Gabaim, that were elected at that time, decided among other things, that every Shabbat after the Musaff prayer, the worshipers will sit together for a Kiddush. All the worshipers had to take turn in bringing the Kiddush. Chortkov's Chassidim, Reb Eliezer the slaughterer, Reb. Yeshayho Phingold, Reb. Livtzi, and even Reb. Yehosua Ephraim who lived a long distance away, near the train station, had to walk every Shabbat, in a cold rainy day, in the winter and in the fall, to pray at the Kloiz of our rabbi of blessed memory. They all gathered together, under the roof of our Admor, to take part in the traditional Kiddush.
One Saturday, I remember that it was on Tu-Bishvat and the weekly portion was Parashat Shelach. We, the young men, gathered after our mid-day meal at the Stratin Kloiz. We set talking next to the warm stove, until it was time for our daily Genara lesson. Suddenly the door burst open, and Reb Eliezer came in shrouded in steam from the freezing air that blow in. With great joy, he started to sing and dance Shabbat Kodesh Shabbat Kodesh (Holy Shabbat)
We, the young men, jumped at the opportunity that fell into our hands, and took him for a few spins around the Bima. Leizer Vinkeler, who was drunk, suddenly started to call in a very loud voice. Dose Ziede Viezer knows what Shabbat is all about? I Leizer Yakov know what Shabbat is all about! Ziede Viezer eats fish also on Mondays, he drinks wine also on Wednesdays, but I, Liezer, know what Shabbat is all about! Only on Shabbat I eat and drink properly, in honor of the Holy Shabbat I eat and enjoy myself! And then, he started to sing his song: Shabbat Kodesh Shabbat Kodesh A little later, Reb. Liezer calmed down, it was like his internal flame died out. He set next to the warm stove, his head leaning against his hands, and he fell asleep. Sleeping a restful Shabbat sleep.
And we, the young men, learnt an important lesson: that only a poor Jew, who is
happy with whatever he is got, can despise the life of the rich, and consider
himself happier then the richest rich.
by Simcha Fish (Dag)
Translated Sara Mages
I still remember the times at the end of World War I, when the Balfour Declaration brought a lot of happiness and excitement to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora.
Almost immediately, Zionists Youth Groups were established in Galicia, and also in our city, and the sound of the Hebrew language was being heard in the streets. The Ukrainians and the Polish were still fighting for the liberation of Eastern Galicia, but they were united in one cause: their hatred of the Jews. They assaulted the Jews, robbed and murdered them. But in many occasions, they were beaten back by Jews who refused to stand still to their attackers. During those frantic days a Militia group was organized in Chortkov. The group was given official weapons, and acted under the protection of the local authorities. The best young men volunteered to join the Militia to protect our people and our city. We witnessed many acts of heroism, and one event left a long lasting impression in my memory. It happened during market day. The farmers, who arrived to Chortkov by the thousands, started a riot and looted the shops. One woman, who was called the Russian, not because of her nationality but maybe because she came from there, stood in her market's store, fighting her attackers and calling for help. To the laughing sounds of her attackers, a young man risked his life to help her. He pushed his way through her attackers, and while they were attacking him he helped her to close the store, and that, without paying attention to the beating that were landing on him. If I am not mistaken, his name was Zev Richter. Our family, who was a strong believer in the Zionist idealism, started to plan its immigration to Israel. The young among us, believed that in order to accomplish our goal, we first have to prepare ourselves physically, and also learn a trade. Therefore, my brother of blessed memory and I, decided to study a trade that will enable us to take part in the building of Israel. We chose to study agriculture. And in fact, we achieved our goal. Almost all the members of our family, mostly the second generation, work as farmers. Some in Kibbutzim and some in agricultural settlements. At first, we chose to be carpenters, the single most popular trade in our city. We wanted to be the leaders who walk in front of the camp. At that time, a whole family could not immigrate together. My father was an avid Zionist and an active member of Mizrachi and the Jewish National Fund. Not once, he suffered from insults directed at him by members of the synagogue, who belonged to Agudat Israel organization. They kept on telling him, that he was keeping himself busy with nonsense, and that he was collecting money for the Zionists traitors. My father never paid much attention to his attackers, and continued with his job, collecting money for the Zionists movement. He took on himself the hardest of all jobs, and successfully executed it. My father insisted that the whole family should immigrate together, and if we can't accomplish that, we should all wait for the opportunity. We, the young members of the family, rebelled against the idea. It was difficult for us to get a job. At that time, Jews in the Diaspora considered the working class to be the lowest class. My father, who worked as tradesman, assumed that we would follow in his footsteps. My brother of blessed memory, immigrated to Israel illegally. He was arrested and suffered from harsh treatment in a Rumanian jail. But at the end, he reached Israel. During a period of eight years, the family slowly arrived in Israel, including my parents, who settled in Kfar Chassidim. They were able to support themselves, working until their last days. In the Diaspora remained Sarkele', the youngest daughter of the family. She was a member of Ha'Shomer Hatzir, and was a strong believer in the idealism of the time, that first you have to bring salvation to the world and only then salvation will come to the Jewish people. This idealism postponed her immigration. When she came to the realization that she was wrong with her views, she decided that it was time to immigrate to Israel. She purchased boat tickets and obtained immigration certificates, but, World War II broke, he husband was drafted to the army, and she was not able leave. One day we received a letter from the Red Cross in which she informed us that she was in Ternopol's ghetto together with her son Tzvika, and that both of them were doing just fine. It was probably one of those last Nazi's letters, that their victims were forced to write to their family members who lived abroad. A short time later, we found out that the ghetto was liquidated, and she was not able to fulfill her dream.
May her soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life!
by Pesia Schechter
Translation by Sara Mages
Like all the matters in this Yizkor Book, that were written for the few who survived, the purpose of the following lines, that I present here, is to describe the appearance of our city Chortkov, the way I still picture it in front of my eyes. The market place, the streets and its alleys.
On three sides, Chortkov was surrounded by mountains. The city itself was located in a deep valley, that was cut twice by the river Seret. The tree covered mountains, and the refreshing mountain air, drew a lot of visitors, who turned Chortkov into a holiday resort.
In the center of our city was the market place, and inside it, there were many little shops. But in the wide circle, that surrounded the city's market, there were big shops and tall buildings (4 to 5 stories) that gave our city the appearance of a large metropolis. The beautiful big church, that housed magnificent artistic statues, left a long lasting impression on those who visited it.
From the center of the market, streets and alleys led to the modest and poorest sections of the city. In those sections there were 22 synagogues, and house of prayers. The only large building in that section of town, was the building of the great synagogue. Its walls were two meters wide, and it was built like a fortress. It is beyond any doubt, that our fathers thought at the time of its construction, that in times of trouble and distress, it would provide a refuge for our people. Like all other synagogues, the women's section was on the upper floor. Due to the fact that the synagogue was partly built underground, the ceiling in the sanctuary was higher then usual. The additional height added an atmosphere of respect and awe to the great synagogue in our city Chortkov.
The Holy Ark was located on the eastern wall and inside it were many ancient Torah Scrolls. Hanging over the ark was the Parocheth (curtain), with the Ten Commandments richly embroidered on it. The reader's stand stood a step down, that way, it was possible to observe the tradition, that the Lord's prayers should come from the depth. The Bima (stage), was located at the center of the synagogue. It was raised from the ground, and to reach it, you had to climb a few steps. The railing around it was made out of artistically decorated wrought iron. The stage was not used exclusively for the reading of the Torah, but was also used for the rabbi's daily sermon, and for the appearance of important lecturers, who came from other cities.
The great synagogue was a beautiful building, because of its artistically woodcarvings. On both sides of the Holy Ark stood two wood carved lions. The walls were covered with beautiful paintings, painted free of charge by Mr. Mailer. Mr. Mailer was a barber by profession, and the wall paintings were his personal contribution to Chortkov's great synagogue. Those who entered the great synagogue, were amazed by its beauty, and felt that their feet were standing in a holy place.
In the streets and the alleys, stood humble homes where the poor Jews lived. Those streets were full of life, activities, and great confidence. During weekdays, there was a lot of rushing around in those streets. Jews hurrying to their places of work and trade, and Jews hurrying in search of work, that the blessed Lord will help them find. But on Friday's eve, there was a festive atmosphere in the poverty stricken streets and alleys of Chortkov. Those who were strolling through the streets, were able to look through the small windows, that were not covered with curtains, see the Shabbat candles, and the Jews whose appearance reflected their calmness and their souls reviled their splendor.
A wide walkway led to the section of town called Stary Chortkov (Old Chortkov). When you entered it, you immediately find yourself in the rabbi's court and his big specious garden, that looked more like a forest then a garden. The Kloiz, the rabbi's prayer house, was also located there. His Polish (ante-room) was known for its splendor and beauty. There were over fifty rooms in the rabbi's palace, and additional buildings were located in his court. His palace, that was purchased from a princess, was a holy place for tens and thousands of Polish Galicia's Chassidim, and Chassidim who came from nearby countries.
In the center of the court was a decorated fountain, and its waters sparkled in the sun. The garden was extremely beautiful, and a refreshing breeze always blow there. It was a great pleasure to walk in this rare beautiful garden. In the center of the garden was a rock, and water ran from it to a canal that ran through the forest to an artificial lake. Next to the lake, stood a charming little round building, where people came for rest and recreation. Everyone, and mostly the young people, came to the rabbi's garden. It was a place where you can dream in a summer day and rest in the shade of its majestic trees. In front of the garden was a large lawn and a well maintained flower garden. In one place, there was a raised flowerbed. and the rabbi's initials David Moshe Friedman, were spelled out of flowers. There were many rare tropical plants in the winter garden. Those plants were uncommon in the gardens of Galicia and Poland. Hiking trails ran through the garden, and fruit trees, of many verities, grew there. The rabbi's court was located only hundred meters from the center of the city. Once you arrived there, you left one world behind you and entered second world, a better and magical world.
The rabbi's Kloiz was thirty meters by thirty meters, with a magnificent Polish. Two tall towers, that stretched up to the sky, stood on each side of the building. Everything was generously and magnificently build. The paintings and the woodcarvings were, beyond any doubt, the most beautiful in all of Poland. But, the beauty and the splendor emerged only when the Chassidim, in their thousands, arrived at the rabbi's court, to show in their happiness and in their joy, their belief and dedication to their holy rabbi, Rabbi David Moshe Friedman.
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